How To Make The Best Old Fashioned You've Ever Had
Follow these expert rules, and you can make a truly excellent version of the classic drink — with whatever tweaks you prefer.
The Old Fashioned is exactly what the name says it is. One of the earliest examples of a cocktail, it dates back to 1806. Originally, it consisted of just three ingredients: American Whiskey, sugar, and bitters. As cocktails evolved and bartenders began adding new elements like vermouth, which turned it into a Manhattan, purists would ask instead for an “Old Fashioned.” This meant they wanted the original cocktail before these flourishes were added.
A proper Old Fashioned is a minimalist success. Bracing. Bitter. Slightly sweet. But it got lost along the way. According to the Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails, it was in the 1940’s that the Old Fashioned “became a mess,” and soda water was added so it became more dilution than spirit by volume. It was also over-sweetened with an orange wheel and a macerated cherry. Such versions alter the very core of what makes the Old Fashioned .
In one of the biggest success stories of classic cocktail resurgence, the Old Fashioned has since been revived by modern mixologists to become one of the most popular cocktails ordered today. By playing with bitters, citrus, smoke, ice, and different spirits, modern mixologists put their own spin on the drink without altering the basic DNA. And that’s what makes it such a compelling cocktail to make on your own — and make your own.
But before you go tweaking the recipe, a truly great Old Fashioned demands an adherence to certain rules and ratios. As such, we spoke to two bartenders known for their Old Fashioneds about how to make the most of the drink’s three core ingredients — before getting creative while still being faithful to the spirit of the original drink.
“My whole approach to classic cocktails centers around maximizing the potential of every ingredient, says Tom Macy, founder of Social Hour Cocktails. “The Old Fashioned is perhaps the best template to illustrate this philosophy, because the whiskey, sugar, bitters, and water (ice) can all be optimized.”
Here are some pro tips on how to do just that:
7 Tips For Making The Ideal Old Fashioned
1. Pick Your Whiskey Wisely
“I would suggest rye whiskey first, because it often has a bit ‘sharper’ flavor, more black pepper, cinnamon, and herbaceous than bourbon,” says Matt Tocco, the Beverage Director of Strategic Hospitality, a Nashville-based restaurant group that owns a dozen local restaurants including The Patterson House, which helped lead that city’s cocktail renaissance.
Despite a preference for rye, Tocco points out that this “certainly doesn't mean you can't make a great Old Fashioned with bourbon.” He recommends using 100-proof whiskies, and if you do use bourbon, try to choose one with rye as its secondary grain instead of wheat or barley.
Tocco also urges to not grab the oldest stuff on your shelf thinking it will make the best Old Fashioned, “You don't want the whiskey to be too old –– I find whiskies about 4-6 years old tend to work best, and our go to is Old Forester 100-proof bourbon.”
2. Use A Rich Simple Syrup — With The Right Kind of Sugar
“The success and failure of any Old Fashioned rests with the balance of whiskey and sugar,” says Macy. He recommends using two ounces of 45-50% abv American whiskey to either .25 oz simple syrup or 1 teaspoon of rich simple syrup. (To make a rich simple syrup, instead of the equal parts water and sugar of simple syrup, you use only one part water to two parts sugar, so it’s a richer syrup that adds less dilution to the cocktail.) As for Macy’s sugar of choice? “Demerara sugar is the best.” Because the sugar is less processed than white sugar, it retains minerals, vitamins, and many unique flavor notes that you lose in more refined sugar––allowing you to get more depth of flavor from the simple recipe.
Tocco also recommends using “rich” syrups for an Old Fashioned, pointing out that it has multiple benefits over simple. “Not only will rich syrup last longer in your fridge,” he says, “it will also add body to the cocktail.” He explains that the sugar in the cocktail lowers the perception of the alcohol, which allows you to enjoy different flavors in the drink, but that it also adds “fatness” or weight to your cocktail.
“This will help give the drink a nicer mouthfeel,” says Tocco, “and rich syrups help much more with that than your regular old ‘one to one’ simple syrup.” Like Macy, Tocco likes Demerara sugar, but also suggests trying Turbinado.
3. Or Use An Interesting Sugar Substitute
Both Tocco and Macy recommended using different kinds of sweeteners, such as maple syrup, honey, or sorghum, to change the tone of the sugar element. Maple syrup will add a richer and more ‘velvety’ mouthfeel than simple syrup, for example, as well as the obvious unique flavor notes.
4. Mix Bitters For Extra Depth
Both Tocco and Macy agree that Angostura bitters are a great starting point for the Old Fashioned but that you should mix different bitters to add depth and customize the flavor profile.
“It's like trying different herb seasoning blends when you are cooking,” says Tocco, who recommends what he calls the "holy trinity" of Angostura, Peychaud's, and Regan's Orange.
Macy’s primary recommendation for anyone making an Old Fashioned is “enhancing the bitters component.” To that end, Macy has created a mix he calls ‘Dad’s Bitters Blend,’ which combines Angostura, orange bitters, and aromatic bitters which have a cinnamon note. (see his recipe below)
5. Experiment With Citrus
Much like altering bitters, Tocco recommends trying different citrus zests over the top of your Old Fashioned. “We like doing lemon in the summer and orange in the winter,” he says. Most importantly, Tocco says there’s no right or wrong way to do it, and it’s about what you’re in the mood for and what you have on hand.
6. The Ice And Glass Also Matter
Both pros recommend serving an Old Fashioned in a rocks glass with one large ice cube. “There are scientific reasons for one big cube, like surface area and dilution,” says Tocco, “but also it just looks and feels great which at the end of the day is what matters most.”
7. Try Different Base Spirits
“Swapping out the base spirit in an Old Fashioned is the first lecture of Cocktail Creation 101,” says Macy, “Both because it's so easy and because it yields such varying and delicious results. “ Macy’s personal favorite variation is the Applejack Old Fashioned, in which he swaps out the whiskey for Apple Brandy, such as Laird's Bonded.
Tequila, gin, brandy, or any other base spirit can be the star of an Old Fashioned. The ratios of spirit to sugar and bitters will remain the same, but each spirit will play differently with different types of sugars and bitters. For example, Macy recommends pairing maple syrup with an Applejack Old Fashioned. Tocco notes that “chocolate and grapefruit bitters can go really well with tequila in an Old Fashioned, or chicory bitters with maple syrup and aged rum,” he says.
Three Old Fashioned Recipes To Try
The Original Old Fashioned
This recipe harkens back to the oldest and simplest version of the drink, and it comes from cocktail historian David Wondrich’s classic cocktail book Imbibe!.
- 1 sugar cube or 5ml sugar
- 5ml water
- 2-3 dashes of Angostura or other bitters
- 60ml straight rye or bourbon
In a heavy-bottomed glass, muddle sugar, water, and bitters. Fill glass with ice, add whiskey, stir well, and garnish with a twist of lemon for rye or orange peel for bourbon.
The Patterson House Old Fashioned
The flagship cocktail of the popular Nashville bar and restaurant that elevated mixology in Music City.
- 2oz Old Forester Signature
- .25oz Demerara Syrup
- 2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1 Dash Regan's Orange Bitters
Stir in a mixing glass or shaker and strain into a rocks glass with one big cube. Garnish with an orange peel after expressing oils during the Fall/Winter menu and with a lemon peel after expressing oils for the Spring/Summer menu.
Tom Macy's Perfect Old Fashioned
Macy developed this recipe after 40 different variations and several years before finally getting it exactly as he wanted it.
- 2 oz rye whiskey 45-50% abv
- scant teaspoon 2:1 demerara syrup
- 3 healthy dashes of Dad's bitters*
- lemon and orange peel for garnish
Stir with ice in a chilled mixing glass for 15-18 seconds. Strain into a frozen rocks glass over a large cube Garnish with a lemon and orange peel
*Dad’s Bitters Blend – from Tom Macy
- 1½ oz Angostura Bitters
- 1 oz Bitter Truth Orange Bitters
- teaspoon Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Own Decanter Bitters
Combine in a dasher bottle.