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Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: Pinaak Kumar

Classic Old Fashioned Recipe: How To Make the Iconic Whiskey Cocktail

If you were to craft a list of the world’s most classic cocktails, the Old Fashioned recipe would undoubtedly sit at the very top. For over 200 years, the whiskey-heavy drink has served as a sophisticated symbol of manliness and taste. With just four main ingredients, the simple sipper is one of the easiest cocktails to make. Uncomplicated yet bold, just like a good stir down drink should be, it’s little wonder the classic Old Fashioned recipe has endured. In our recipe below, we share how to make an Old Fashioned, along with some helpful tips and tricks.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in 'Mad Men' | Image: Michael Yarish/AMC
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in ‘Mad Men’ | Image: Michael Yarish/AMC

Old Fashioned Cocktail Recipe

Main alcohol:Rye whisky or bourbon
Served:On the rocks; poured over ice
Standard garnish:Orange peel, Cocktail or Maraschino cherry
Drinkware:Old Fashioned glass, lowball glass

For many of us, our introduction to the Old Fashioned came by way of the great Don Draper himself. The cigarette-smoking, advertising playboy made famous by Jon Hamm over seven seasons of Mad Men marked a decidedly dapper return to traditional tailoring, talking and intoxicants. It’s true, Draper was a fan of drinking in general, but his poison of choice was always an Old Fashioned. Smooth, refined and manly, the cocktail is almost like a metaphor for the gentleman who drinks it.

Old Fashioned Ingredients

Aside from being one of the most famous cocktails you can make, the Old Fashioned, much like its sibling The Manhattan, is also one of the easiest. According to the International Bartenders Association, there are only four ingredients you need to make the perfect Old Fashioned cocktail. These are;

  • An Old Fashioned cocktail glass
  • 45 ml bourbon or rye whisky
  • 1 sugar cube (or syrup)
  • Few dashes of Angostura bitters
  • Few dashes of plain water
  • An orange peel

That’s it. A simple cocktail that encapsulates the old world flavours in a sophisticated and modern setting. Of course, the depth of flavour in your Old Fashioned will rely heavily on the brand of bourbon you choose as a base, as well as the style of bitters.

For this classic Old Fashioned cocktail recipe, the International Bartenders Association suggests using Angostura aromatic bitters, which is the traditional mixing element. If you are looking for a modern complex and contemporary take on the iconic Old Fashioned cocktail, you can substitute the Angostura for Black Walnut bitters or Cherry Cocktail bitters. Additionally, you could also replace the orange peel garnish with a luxardo cherry or maraschino cherry.

RELATEDWant to learn more about whisky? Check out our comprehensive guide to whisky here.

Old Fashioned recipe | Image: Hybrid Storytellers
Old Fashioned recipe | Image: Hybrid Storytellers

Old Fashioned Method

As mentioned above, the recipe that we are using in this feature is the one put forward by the International Bartenders Association.  This recipe has been refined over decades and has served as the go-to method for how to make an Old Fashioned cocktail. Best of all, it’s super simple and easy to make. Here is the method for making the perfect Old Fashioned cocktail, orange peel twist included;

  1. Place sugar cube in an Old Fashioned cocktail glass
  2. Saturate with bitters
  3. Add a few dashes of plain water
  4. Muddle until dissolved
  5. Fill the glass with a large ice cube
  6. Add whisky
  7. Stir gently
  8. Garnish with orange peel or zest, and a maraschino cherry (optional).
Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: Jakub Dziubak
Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: Jakub Dziubak

What is an Old Fashioned?

The Old Fashioned is a simple bourbon or rye whiskey-based cocktail that has been around for longer than you might think. The first incarnation of the classic cocktail appeared way back in 1862, when Jerry Thomas published his infamous Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks. 

The all-in-one guide offered instructions and recipes from the early days of cocktail mixing, but its most notable addition was that of an Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail. While this iconic recipe bears the same hallmarks and namesake of the drink we now know and love, it substituted whiskey for, you guessed it, Holland Gin. In fact, you’d have to travel forward almost 20 years to find the first real mention of the contemporary classic.

In 1880, in Louisville Kentucky, a region most famous for its bourbon distilleries, a private social club was working on a new recipe. James E. Pepper of The Pendennis Club is credited with coming up with the first bourbon-based Old Fashioned recipe.

According to The Courier-Journal, Pepper is said to have invented the drink in his hometown before taking it to the lofty heights of the Big Apple. The esteemed bartender reportedly introduced his Old Fashioned recipe to the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar, thus giving way to New York‘s most iconic cocktail.

Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: PEIXIN WU
Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: PEIXIN WU

Things to Consider for the Old Fashioned Cocktail

Nowadays, the Old Fashioned is seen as a staple addition to any barroom or cocktail list. But be warned, whisky isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. High-proof and full of complex flavours, the iconic spirit is an acquired taste, so when it comes to making a bourbon Old Fashioned or rye variant, there is a lot to consider.

Best Bourbon to Use in an Old Fashioned

Since the Old Fashioned is essentially just alcohol, sugar, bitters and ice, the whisky matters. A lot. The entire depth of flavour will be greatly impacted by your choice of rye whisky or bourbon. To make your decision a little easier, we’ve put together a short guide on choosing the best bourbon for your Old Fashioned. Here are the notes you should look for when selecting your boozy base. Your bourbon or rye whisky should;

  • be sufficiently high proof;
  • be dry enough to withstand both the sugar cube and ice dilution;
  • not be overly sweet or spicy.

It’s important to note that while the Old Fashioned is heavily dependent on the flavour of the bourbon or rye whisky, that doesn’t mean you have to reach for the top shelf. It is, after all, a cocktail. A moderately-priced bourbon or rye whisky will do the job, and in many cases, the added biters and sugar will bring out complex notes in your favourite booze you hadn’t previously picked up on.

For us here at Man of Many, our favourite bourbon and rye whiskies to use for an Old Fashioned include;

Common Old Fashioned Cocktail Mistakes

Even though the Old Fashioned recipe has been around for 150 years, that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. Bartenders and at-home mixologists have dabbled in reinventing the iconic drink to varying degrees of success. Some of the most common Old Fashioned mistakes have less to do with the method and mix itself, and more to do with the experience. For example,

  1. An Old Fashioned glass (or rocks glass) is essential. As this is a cocktail that is mixed within the serving glass, having straight-sided walls makes a massive difference; no fancy glassware needed. Just stick to the standard rocks glass.
  2. Don’t use soda water. Sure, if you want to mix things up, feel free to go nuts with the bubbly stuff, but this traditional recipe calls for the simple stuff.
  3. Don’t over-garnish. Everybody loves a grand presentation, but the Old Fashioned cocktail is exactly that; old fashioned. This is a drink that screams refined elegance and sophistication, there is no need for fancy finishes. Let the cocktail speak for itself. A simple orange twists is more than enough.
  4. Don’t go overboard on sugar cubes. Nobody likes a sweet Old Fashioned full of loose sugar. Alternatively, you could make use of a simple syrup to balance out the bitters with a little sweetness.

Whether you’re a whisky connoisseur or cocktail novice, our Old Fashioned recipe is a sure-fire crowdpleaser. Simple, down to earth and full of flavour, it’s the perfect celebration all year-round. It’s not about skill, the Old Fashioned is about sophistication. As the great Don Draper would say, “Make it simple but significant”.

Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: Pylyp Sukhenko
Old Fashioned cocktail | Image: Pylyp Sukhenko

Alternatives to the Old Fashioned

If the Old Fashioned isn’t quite your cocktail of choice, you aren’t alone. The flavours can often be overpowering and it takes a bit of getting used to to. Why not test out some of our other cocktail recipes and work your way up to the iconic heavy hitter?

For all you die-hard whisky lovers we’ve compiled a few more guides including whiskies from around the world and some gift ideas below:

Best Whisky Guides

Whiskies From Around the World

Great Whisky Gifts

Still have questions? We’ve got you covered.

Old Fashioned Cocktail FAQs

What whisky should you use for an Old Fashioned?

An Old Fashioned should always be made with a bourbon whisky. This is because the balanced blend of corn, rye, and barley malt, allow the fundamental elements of the cocktail to shine through.

What brand of bourbon is best for an Old Fashioned?

While you can use any bourbon for an Old Fashioned, it is best to look for one that is not too sweet, is dry enough to surpass the ice and sugar cube and is sufficiently high proof. Bulleit Straight Bourbon Frontier Whisky, Buffalo Trace and W.L. Weller Special Reserve are all good options to use as the base bourbon in an Old Fashioned.

What is the difference between a Manhattan and an old fashioned?

Old Fashioneds are made with bourbon or rye whiskey, Angostura Bitters and sugar (or simple syrup.) The key difference between the two is that the Manhattan uses sweet vermouth and the Old Fashioned uses plain sugar.