Old-Fashioned Cocktail Recipe: The Whiskey Classic

Classic Old-Fashioned Cocktail With Bourbon or Rye Whiskey
Claire Cohen
  • Total: 3 mins
  • Prep: 3 mins
  • Cook: 0 mins
  • Yield: 1 cocktail (1 serving)

A sugar cube soaked in bitters, a shot of whiskey, and an orange peel; creating an impressive and timeless cocktail really is that easy. The old-fashioned drink is one of the best ways to dress up your favorite whiskey. It's a classic cocktail that's been served since the mid-1800s and is as popular today as it was back then.

The old-fashioned recipe is very simple, has been adapted in many ways over the years, and can be personalized to your taste or each whiskey you choose. If you're a traditionalist, you might prefer a great rye whiskey. Bourbon is a perfect choice as well and for years it has been the preferred style of whiskey for this iconic drink. Whichever whiskey you pour, the sweet, bitter, and fruit flavors added to the glass will enhance it nicely.

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Ingredients

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 to 3 dashes ​Angostura bitters
  • 2 ounces ​bourbon (or rye whiskey)
  • Optional: orange slice
  • Optional: splash of club soda
  • Garnish: ​orange peel
  • Garnish: maraschino cherry

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Place the sugar cube at the bottom of an old-fashioned glass.

  3. Saturate the cube with bitters, add an orange slice if you like, and muddle.

  4. Fill the glass with ice.

  5. Add the whiskey and stir well. Finish it off with a splash of club soda if you prefer.

  6. Garnish with an orange peel and cherry.

  7. Serve and enjoy!

The Old-Fashioned Today

It's common for drinks to morph and evolve over the years. This is especially true when it's one of the very first cocktails and today there are many variations on the old-fashioned.

Rye whiskey was the original choice for this drink. Over the years, the selection of good ryes dwindled so bourbon became the go-to substitute for much of the latter 20th century. While bourbon remains a favorite for many drinkers, the luxury of a burgeoning rye market offers a fantastic opportunity to explore the old-fashioned in its original form. It's difficult to choose a bad whiskey for this drink and it's a great venue to try out new finds, so pour whatever you like.

The point of the old-fashioned is to avoid adding too much to it so the whiskey is allowed to shine. The best old-fashioned drinks are simple and, because of that, it's important to pay close attention to the quality of each element.

Recipe Variations

  • Quite often, bartenders will top the drink with a splash of club soda. That is not a traditional method and old-timers would certainly scoff at its use.
  • Even the maraschino cherry is not original. Honestly, it's not necessary for anything other than making the drink look a little fancier.
  • Adding an orange slice or peel to the muddle is another modern twist. The earliest old-fashioneds barely used it as a garnish. Some bartenders pair a lemon peel with certain whiskeys. It's all a matter of personal choice.
  • Should you choose not to muddle the peel, express it over the drink before dropping it into the glass. To do this, simply twist up the peel and give it a good squeeze (directed toward the glass and not your eyes) and bits of citrus oils will spray into the drink.

It Was "Old-Fashioned" a Century Ago

The story of the old-fashioned is something modern drinkers can relate to. This cocktail sparked the same type of "old vs. new" debates in the late 19th-century bar scene that modern "martini" menus bring up today. It's actually funny to think that the old-fashioned was considered "old-fashioned" over a hundred years ago, but it's true.

It was around the 1880s that the American cocktail scene really got going. New drinks were being created with curaçao, absinthe, syrups, and fruit juices and they were a hit. There were, of course, the holdouts, those nostalgic drinkers who wanted a simple drink with a kick like they got in the "old days." To them, all of the fancy stuff was a waste of time.

Editorials were written in newspapers, arguments were raised in bars around the country, and soon the old-fashioned got its official name. It was first published under the name in Theodore Proulx's (of Chicago's famous Chapin and Gore saloon) 1888 "Bartenders Manual."

The Pendennis Club Myth

For decades, the story of the old-fashioned said that it was created in 1881 at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. David Wondrich points out in his book "Imbibe!" that this is false.

The club did not open until 1881 and a year before that, "old-fashioned cocktails" were mentioned in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. There was even an "ambiguous newspaper squib" that mentioned old-fashioned drinks as early as 1869.

In truth, the old-fashioned formula dates back to the 1850s, if not earlier. It could be made with whiskey, brandy, or gin (Old Tom or "Holland", better known today as genever). It was quite simply liquor, sugar (not syrup), and ice. Add bitters and you have the basic definition of a true cocktail.

Follow the Historical Advice on Ice

Within Wondrich's notes on the old-fashioned is a fascinating section about the proper ice to use in the drink. It turns out that ice balls and 2-inch cubes are nothing new; they simply got lost in the American bar until a fairly recent revival. Wondrich references the large cube's use in 1899, "...mixologically ambitious saloons preferred to refrigerate their old-fashioned with ice cut into 'perfect cubes about two inches on a side'."

The same theory used today for adding a chill and slight dilution to a glass of straight whiskey has long been preferred for the old-fashioned. Those fancy ice machines that are so convenient today and produce tiny, fast-melting "cubes" ruined it for many years. If you are a devotee to the old-fashioned and have not made the switch to 2-inch ice, you'll find it to be the last step in perfecting this iconic drink.

How Strong Is the Old-Fashioned?

As you might imagine, the old-fashioned is not much lighter than a straight pour of whiskey. Essentially, one simply needs to factor in a little dilution from the ice. With that, the alcohol content of an old-fashioned made with an 80-proof whiskey would be around 32 percent ABV (64 proof). Those old-timers would be happy to know that it still has that kick they were looking for!