The old fashioned is a descendant of the even older “whisky cocktail”—a combination of grain spirit, bitters, sugar, and citrus that was popular in the early 19th century. This drink started out as an eye opener and hangover cure and the name evolved over the course of what David Wondrich describes as the “Golden Age” of cocktails (1830s–1860s), when bartenders began to incorporate various syrups and ingredients. To order the classic whisky cocktail, customers began to ask for it "the old fashioned way," and so the spirit-forward staple was born.
The first written account of the old fashioned—though one made with gin—appears in Jerry Thomas' 1866 bartending guide How to Mix Drinks: The Bon Vivant's Companion. By the 1880's, the whisky version was ubiquitous in bars from Manhattan to Washington D.C. to San Francisco. These days, most old fashioned drinkers opt for bourbon or rye, but it’s important to note that any aged spirit is suitable for this classic cocktail. In 2007, at New York City’s Death & Co., bartender Phil Ward created a delicious, mezcal-based version that has since been adopted as a standard serve around the world. Meanwhile, Korbel brandy is the popular old fashioned choice in Chicago and elsewhere in the Midwest. The State of Wisconsin even has its own variation, which includes a muddled maraschino cherry, an orange slice, and a splash of soda water or Sprite. Some purists object to this fruity and diluted formula, but as the whole point of the old fashioned is the freedom to enjoy your spirit just the way you like it, there’s technically no "right" way to mix one.
For the traditional whisky recipe, many bartenders prefer rye over bourbon for its drier, spicier flavor profile. I particularly enjoy Rittenhouse or Old Forester 100. Whichever you choose, I recommend using a spirit bottled in the 50–52% ABV range; these stronger pours boast more intense aromas and flavors than lower-ABV options (and are less susceptible to over-dilution if you prefer to take your time enjoying your drink). I also like to sweeten my old fashioned with a “rich” simple syrup made from 2 parts sugar to 1 part water rather than the typical 1:1 ratio. This results in a less diluted drink with a better texture than one made with a more watered-down liquid. (To make your own, follow the standard simple syrup recipe—just double the sugar.)
Classic Old Fashioned Recipe
- 2 oz. bourbon or rye whisky
- 1 bar spoon rich simple syrup
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters, such as Angostura
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- Orange twist, for garnish
Wisconsin Old Fashioned
- ½ oz. rich simple syrup
- Orange slices, divided
- Maraschino cherries
- 2 oz. American brandy or bourbon
- Soda water or Sprite
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