Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Classic old-fashioned on the rocks with an orange peel and cherry garnish

The Spruce / 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 old-fashioned cocktail from scratch really is that easy. This classic drink has been served since the mid-1800s and is as popular today as it was back then.

The old-fashioned is one of the best ways to dress up your favorite whiskey without significantly altering the taste. If you're a traditionalist, you might prefer rye whiskey. The bourbon old-fashioned is a popular choice as well; it was the go-to style of whiskey for this iconic drink for years. Whichever whiskey you pour, the sweet, bitter, and fruit flavors added to the glass will enhance it nicely.

There are many ways to adjust this recipe, too. Follow an original, simplified approach, incorporate one of the modern twists, or personalize it to your taste or the whiskey you're pouring at the moment. Muddle or stir, add soda, use syrup, or ramp up the fruit... The point is that you enjoy the drink, so have fun exploring all of the options!

4:27

Click Play to See This Recipe Come Together

Ingredients

  • 1 sugar cube (or 1/2 teaspoon sugar)
  • 2 to 3 dashes ​Angostura bitters
  • Ice
  • 2 ounces ​bourbon (or rye whiskey)
  • Garnish: ​orange peel
  • Garnish: maraschino cherry

Steps to Make It

  1. Gather the ingredients.

  2. Place a sugar cube or sugar in an old-fashioned glass and saturate it with bitters. Muddle or stir to mix.

  3. Add the whiskey, fill the glass with ice, and stir well.

  4. Express the orange peel over the drink before dropping it into the glass: Twist up the peel and give it a good squeeze (directed toward the glass, not your eyes) and bits of citrus oil will spray into the drink. Add a cherry if you like.

  5. Serve and enjoy.

The Old-Fashioned Today

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

Like the Manhattan, rye whiskey was the original choice for this drink. Over the years, the selection of good ryes dwindled, and bourbon became the preferred 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 lousy whiskey for this drink, and it's a great venue to try out new finds, so pour whatever you like.

The intent of the old-fashioned is to avoid adding too much to it, which allows the whiskey to shine. The best old-fashioned drinks are simple mixes, and it's essential to pay close attention to the quality of each ingredient. From there, it's all a matter of personal choice.

Recipe Variations

  • For much of the 20th century, the old-fashioned was muddled with an orange slice and topped with a splash of club soda and a maraschino cherry. It's a nice drink but many bartenders have reverted to the simpler version.
  • When using granulated sugar (rather than a cube), it's common to add 1 teaspoon of water, then stir until the sugar dissolves.
  • Alternatively, use a splash (barely 1 teaspoon) of simple syrup instead of granulated sugar, mixing it with the bitters before adding ice and whiskey.
  • Adding an orange slice or peel to the muddle is a modern twist. The earliest old-fashioneds barely used the fruit as a garnish. Some bartenders pair a lemon peel with certain whiskeys and some use both orange and lemon peels.
  • Angostura aromatic bitters are the classic choice, though today's market includes a great variety of bitters. Orange bitters are nice, and any whiskey barrel-aged bitters are a natural accent for the drink. Some whiskeys can even handle unusual flavors such as chocolate, peach, or rhubarb.

Why Is It Called an Old-Fashioned?

Modern drinkers can relate to the story of the old-fashioned. This cocktail sparked the same type of "old versus new" debates in the late 19th-century bar that modern "martini" menus produce today. In truth, the old-fashioned was considered "old-fashioned" over a hundred years ago.

Around the 1880s, the American cocktail scene really started to boom. Bartenders were creating new drinks 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.

After countless newspaper editorials and bar debates, the old-fashioned got its official name. It was first published under the name in Theodore Proulx's (of Chicago's famous Chapin & Gore saloon) 1888 "The Bartenders Manual."

The Pendennis Club Myth

For decades, the creation of the old-fashioned was attributed to the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. David Wondrich points out in his book "Imbibe!" that this is false.

The club opened in 1881, but a year before that, "old-fashioned cocktails" were mentioned in 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 was 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 original definition of a cocktail.

Follow the Historical Advice on Ice

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

It follows the same theory used to chill and slightly dilute straight whiskey. Those fancy ice machines that are so convenient today and produce tiny, fast-melting "cubes" ruined it for many years. If you are an old-fashioned devotee and have not made the switch to 2-inch ice, it's the last step in perfecting this drink.

How Strong Is the Old-Fashioned?

The old-fashioned is definitely a strong drink. With little dilution and no significant mixer, it's not much lighter than a straight pour of whiskey. The alcohol content of an old-fashioned made with an 80-proof whiskey falls around 32 percent ABV (64 proof). Those old-timers would be happy to know that it still has that kick they were looking for.