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Mix it Up: The Old Fashioned

Get to know the history, variations, and finer points of the world's oldest cocktail.

The Old Fashioned is a lot like grilled cheese: a great, simple recipe to help you learn the ropes when you're first entering the world of culinary excellence. All you need is handful of ingredients that you probably already have lying around the house, a basic idea of how to operate a stove, and boom: you've got something far greater than the sum of its parts.

The exact same idea applies for mixing up an Old Fashioned: you can make one with the cheapest ingredients around and no prior cocktail knowledge, and spend decades learning its nuances and exactly what best suits your palate.


The History

Around 1806, there appeared on the American drinking scene a boozy little number that became the great grandfather of all craft libations we enjoy today. It was called, simply, the Cocktail.

Essentially this was any liquor (whiskey, brandy, gin and rum all had their own variations) plus sugar, water, and bitters. Everything was fine until the 1860s, when what we would recognize today as craft cocktails started appearing in earnest. Curacao, absinthe, liqueurs, and aromatized wines made their way behind bars, transforming the Cocktail (singular) into cocktails (plural). But as with any social movement, some bar patrons preferred the way things used to be – the time-honored Whiskey Cocktail. They ordered it “the old fashioned way.” Thus, the Old Fashioned was born.

Though the exact origins are hazy at best, some say the first menu to contain an Old Fashioned was the Pendennis Club of Louisville, Kentucky, in the twilight years of the 19th century. It seems to fit, considering the Pendennis is still an operational gentlemen’s club (the real kind, not the strip club kind) whose prominent members include tycoons, news publishers, politicians, and the odd philosopher. It also hosts an annual amateur boxing night and Kentucky Derby party. If this isn’t the home of the Old Fashioned, we don’t really care to know what is.

Even with such highborn origins, the famous cocktail is confoundingly simple. Whiskey, sugar, water, bitters, ice. A teetotaling grandmother would have sixty percent of these ingredients in her kitchen, and the other two should be among a new drinker’s first purchases. But for such a simple recipe, a ton of heated debate swirls around this venerable drink.


Bourbon vs. Rye

The most important step: measuring a healthy pour of high proof whiskey for the cocktail's base.
The most important step: measuring a healthy pour of high proof whiskey for the cocktail's base.

This is the first choice any aspiring Old Fashioned mixer has to make. Both spirits are delicious in their own right, but the camps are pretty divided on which makes a better base for this drink.

To put it (criminally) simply, bourbon is sweeter and rye is spicier. You could spend all night researching why different factions argue for their respective spirit, but at the end of it all, you really just wind up with those facts.

A dash of Angostura helps to soften the whiskey's aggressive notes, while adding a soft spice of its own.
A dash of Angostura helps to soften the whiskey's aggressive notes, while adding a soft spice of its own.

We prefer rye, because the high notes of the spice spin the drink’s flavor profile in fantastic ways, as opposed to the sweetness from bourbon, which can overwhelm the drink when layered with the bitters and sugar.

Regardless of which you choose, make sure you're pouring the good stuff – with so few ingredients, it makes a big difference – and make sure it’s high proof. This is a sipping drink, designed to gradually water itself down (which constantly changes the flavor profile), but you need to still taste the booze all the way through.


Sugar Cubes vs. Syrup

The second choice is sugar. Fortunately, this is a shorter discussion, at least for us.

Bars have this stuff ready-made. If you don't, just combine 1 part sugar to 1 part water and head in a saucepan for a few minutes on medium-low heat.
Bars have this stuff ready-made. If you don't, just combine 1 part sugar to 1 part water and head in a saucepan for a few minutes on medium-low heat.

A lot of people muddle a teaspoon of granulated sugar or a sugar cube with the bitters and a splash of water. And while that method has worked for two centuries, modern kitchens mean that we can now make simple syrup with relatively no effort. Syrup affects the drink in the same sweet way, without leaving a crystalline sludge at the bottom of the glass.

So, we say get rid of the sugar cube and muddler and just use a quick pour of simple syrup instead. Yes, muddling an Angostura-soaked sugar cube looks cool, is traditional, and may impress your date. But it doesn't serve any practical purpose and usually leaves you with an imperfectly mixed drink.


The Garnish

Third and last hard choice: fruit. This is totally a matter of preference, and we really don’t have any dog in the fight. Each opinion has reputable cocktail experts barking for it, so we'll just lay out the facts.

This can be a divisive subject, but we like a little bit of citrus in our Old Fashioned. It adds presentation points, and contributes a very subtle sweetness.
This can be a divisive subject, but we like a little bit of citrus in our Old Fashioned. It adds presentation points, and contributes a very subtle sweetness.

Some people say that an Old Fashioned is now and always has been a perfect drink, and that any fruit is an adulterant. Others say an orange peel is fine, but no cherries. Others still like orange peel and cherry for garnish. And a fourth camp muddles orange and/or cherries along with the bitters, water, and sugar. Quite the spectrum, indeed.

Twisting the orange releases aromatic oils locked inside, bringing them out of the peel and into your cocktail.
Twisting the orange releases aromatic oils locked inside, bringing them out of the peel and into your cocktail.

If we're forced to take sides, we’d say start with the orange peel – twist it over the top of a finished drink to release the citrus oils, and plunk it in. Then if you want more sweetness, go crazy. Add cherries, muddle cherries, experiment with booze-soaked cherries, and so on. The only thing we humbly ask is that you don’t ruin this drink by using grocery store maraschino cherries. They’re high fructose nonsense that can barely be classified as food, much less actual fruit. You can do better. We can all do better.


The Recipe

A finished Old Fashioned by Donny Clutterbuck, head bartender at Cure in Rochester, NY and president of the US Bartenders Guild Rochester.
A finished Old Fashioned by Donny Clutterbuck, head bartender at Cure in Rochester, NY and president of the US Bartenders Guild Rochester.

For more than 200 years, gents have relaxed with the strong, perfect simplicity of the Old Fashioned, and muddled fruit aside, you really can’t go wrong with one. The first one you make will probably also be the worst one you make – but it'll still be pretty damn good.

From there, you can look forward to a very enjoyable learning process as you figure out your own perfect recipe.

Ingredients

  • 2 oz high proof, high-quality rye

  • 1 tsp simple syrup

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • Dash of water or club soda

  • Slice and/or peel of orange

  • Ice

Preparation

  1. In a mixing glass, combine the rye, simple syrup, bitters, and water or club soda. Add ice and stir for 30 seconds.

  2. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass (what else?), ideally with one very large piece of ice in it.

  3. Twist the citrus peel(s) over the drink, then lightly brush rim of the glass before dropping into the drink.

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