What's in an old fashioned? How to make the whiskey drink at home

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What's in an old fashioned? How to make the whiskey drink at home
An old fashioned is a very strong "alcohol forward" drink, meaning you can taste the main spirit. Joshua Resnick/Getty Images
  • The old fashioned is the first American cocktail, and uses whiskey, sugar, bitters, and water.
  • It was designed to allow bar patrons to better enjoy the poorly-made whiskey of the early 1800s.
  • Today, the old fashioned is a style of cocktail that can showcase just about any spirit.

If you're into old-timey cocktails, the old fashioned is as classic as it gets. Made up of just sugar, bitters, whiskey, and water, it is believed to be the first American cocktail creation. This "alcohol-forward" cocktail (a drink where you can actually taste the main spirit) is quite simple: the whiskey is the star, but all the additional components help to enhance the whiskey's underlying flavors and bring out aromas and other notes as you sip.

The history of the old fashioned begins in the early 1800s, when whiskey was the alcohol of choice. It wasn't always the carefully distilled, barrel-aged spirit we are familiar with today - in fact, bar patrons typically opted for the rougher, less expensive, bootleg version. It was made quickly and cheaply - with additives like tobacco, iodine, or animal carcasses for color - that made the resulting alcohol...pretty terrible.

"Many blue-collar workers would actually tolerate it since they weren't paid much and could get drunk for cheap," says NYC-based mixologist Anthony "The Professor" Baker. "Although they craved the more affordable whiskey, they didn't really want to deal with its awful taste and smell. And so, someone politely asked the bartender to make the whiskey more palatable."

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The obliging bartender used sugar, bitters, and water to help temper the horrible taste of the bootleg alcohol, and the oils from an orange peel to tone down the putrid smell. This doctored version of whiskey became known as a "cocktail," and eventually began to take other forms as bartenders started to play around with flavored syrups, vermouths, and muddled fruits. Baker noted that these sweeter, more palatable libations were geared towards women (who were allowed into bars in the 1860's) and they quickly became part of the drinking culture.

As enticing as these new concoctions were, there were still plenty of people who preferred their drinks without all the bells and whistles of muddled fruits or fancy syrups. "If you went to the bartender and said 'I just want sugar, bitters, water, and whiskey', then the bartender would reply 'so you want the old fashioned cocktail,'" says Baker. "And that's how it received its name."

Ingredients

  • ¼ oz. rich simple syrup, made with 2 parts sugar to 1 part water
  • 3-4 dashes aromatic bitters (like Angostura)
  • 2 ¼ oz. whiskey: Baker recommends bourbon or rye whiskey for the classic version
  • Large ice cubes: "Don't even think of using crushed ice for this," says Baker. "By using the smaller cubes, you run the risk of over-diluting a perfectly crafted cocktail."
  • Orange peel garnish (optional)

What else you need

Quick tip: If you don't want to make simple syrup, that's perfectly fin. Traditionalists will often muddle a sugar cube with bitters instead, and then add the alcohol to further dissolve the sugar crystals.

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Notes on ice

What's in an old fashioned? How to make the whiskey drink at home
You can elevate the look of your old fashioned by using ice molds to give your ice distinct shapes. WilliamM/Getty Images

This cocktail's balance relies heavily on the amount of water used, as it is what is responsible for opening up the whiskey's aromas and flavors, and the water comes from the stirred ice component.

"Since alcohol is the most efficient fluid at melting ice, you will need larger, more solid ice cubes," says Baker. "Ice that is prepared in a typical home ice tray are actually great for old fashioneds as they are thick and solid, and will keep your old fashioneds cold over the period of about 20 minutes without ever over-diluting it." If you're looking for something more specialized, you can find large ice cube molds online or at a kitchen supply store.

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How to make an old fashioned cocktail

What's in an old fashioned? How to make the whiskey drink at home
Rachel Mendelson/Insider
  1. Combine ingredients. Add the rich simple syrup, bitters, whiskey, and a large ice cube or two to a rocks glass.
  2. Mix. Gently stir for 10 seconds to combine.
  3. Add your orange twist. Squeeze the oil of an orange peel over the glass, then drop in.

Variations on an old fashioned

"In the early cocktail culture, old fashioneds were strictly designated for just whiskey," says Baker. "Now, [the term] is used to describe a style of a cocktail, so you could technically use any spirit and turn it into an old fashioned."

Some popular variations include:

  • The Brandy Old Fashioned: Popular in the Wisconsin area, this version includes brandy, sugar, bitters, a splash of lemon-lime or grapefruit soda, plus a maraschino cherry garnish. This drink will be sweeter than your traditional whiskey-based old fashioned, with spicy notes of oak and dried fruit since brandy is distilled from grapes, peaches, apples, and other fruits.
  • The Oaxacan Old Fashioned. This version replaces the whiskey with mezcal, offering a smoke-tinged drink that highlights the earthiness of the alcohol. Instead of straight sugar or simple syrup, use agave nectar, and garnish with a flamed orange peel.
  • The Mexican Old Fashioned: Baker's version of the Oaxacan uses Anejo or Reposado tequila. These tequilas tend to be milder and more herbaceous, which is perfect for those who are turned off by the heavy smoky character of mezcal. Also in the mix are chocolate bitters and agave nectar, with a fresh sage leaf as a garnish.
  • The Piña Colada Old Fashioned: In this tropical twist, Baker uses pineapple syrup, a mix of coconut rum liqueur, aged rum, and Angostura bitters with a pineapple wedge garnish.
  • The "Bees Knees" Old Fashioned: Aged gin takes center stage in this cocktail created by Baker, and is complemented by honey syrup and lemon bitters, with a honeycomb nugget or dried lemon garnish.

Quick tip: There are a few ways to balance your cocktail if it isn't quite right, according to Baker.

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  • If it is too sweet, add a couple more dashes of bitters
  • If it is too strong, put it back into the mixing glass over ice and stir it for another 5 seconds.
  • If it is too bitter, add another 0.25 ounces more of sweetener.

Insider's takeaway

The old fashioned is a classic recipe that every bartender - professional or hobbyist - should have in their arsenal. It only requires four components: whiskey (or another spirit), sugar, bitters, and ice, and can be easily customized for an elegant cocktail that you can savor throughout the evening.

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