The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

The term “Old-Fashioned” has come to imply the Whiskey Old-Fashioned, and that’s the drink I’ll focus on for this piece. It is an example of the original “cocktail,” one of the oldest and most successful of American mixed drinks. The Whiskey Cocktail’s survival through more than two centuries, even while the category evolved far beyond its simple plan, is due to more than its historic heritage: its strength lies in the plainness of its character and the straightforwardness of its flavor and build.

Made with only sweetened spirits and bitters, the original cocktail is about simplicity and immediacy, and definitely not about sophistication and complexity. When it first appeared around 1800, it was simply a defined preparation for your favorite spirit—a “gin cocktail” or a “brandy cocktail” or a “whiskey cocktail” were all made in the same manner. It was predictable, quick, and easy to make, combining a spirit, sugar (and water to dissolve it), and bitters, and so it remained for the first half of the nineteenth century.

As for the “Whiskey Old-Fashioned,” as late as 1887, Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide listed it simply as the Whiskey Cocktail. It also listed recipes that were very like the basic cocktails, but which included new ingredients, and branched out beyond the basic “bittered sling” of the early 1800s.

The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

It would be convenient if there had been a new word to signify these new new drink styles, but it didn’t turn out that way. The word “cocktail” remained the word at hand, and began to encompass drinks that were increasingly evolved—much the way “Martini” was subverted nearly a century later. The new drinks tended to follow the original pattern, but with a tweak here and a new ingredient there, so it was a slow evolution from the comfort of a well-understood formula to the inventive embellishments of the Gilded Age.

The evolved formulas were popular, but apparently not universally desired; “Old-Fashioned” entered the parlance, perhaps as early as 1880, to indicate the well-defined antebellum cocktail:

The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

  • 2 oz rye whiskey (or bourbon)
  • ½ oz simple syrup (demerara works well)
  • 2–3 dashes aromatic bitters (Angostura, Fee’s)

Stir ingredients until well chilled; strain into a chilled rocks glass. Express and garnish with a strip of orange or lemon peel. Add one or two large ice cubes.

This drink is traditionally put away slowly, so ice is always part of this drink. Use one or two large cubes, the largest you have available that are appropriate for your rocks glass; big is good—you need ice that will keep the drink cold for awhile without overly diluting it.

I usually go a little light on the sugar, as this is really all about whiskey; it’s very easy to oversweeten the Old-Fashioned, especially if you’re making it with bourbon or Canadian whiskies instead of rye.

The Old-Fashioned Cocktail, photo © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Speaking of sugar: many recipe listings suggest that you should sweeten the Old-Fashioned with a sugar cube muddled with water and the bitters, then build the drink in the serving glass. I have nothing against building the drink in the serving glass, but this muddling the sugar business, no. That’s just a pain. Consider the options:  muddle sugar for ten minutes (sort of a miniature version of pounding sand), or use syrup and get on with drinking a good whiskey cocktail. Your answer will be the right one. Plain syrup, demerara, agave—all are good choices.

You will also see recipes for the Old-Fashioned that incorporate all sorts of fruits, usually muddled, and even versions that are topped with soda. I will grant that whiskey and fruit go together very nicely, so go for it if you like that kind of thing. But that drink needs a different name—it certainly doesn’t have much to do with the original Whiskey Cocktail.

(If you’re interested in the evolution of the Old-Fashioned itself, including an examination of where that goofy fruit mush came from: Robert Hess surveyed the literature a few years ago, and it is fascinating reading for the historically minded.)

31 thoughts on “The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

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    1. The simplest thing would be to just say, “Golly, I don’t have any bitters!” and then proceed without. Cut back the sugar a bit—you’re down to just sweetened whiskey at this point, and it could be a little cloying without the bitters. You’ll be drinking what amounts to the original “sling,” and it’s a good, even simpler, drink. (Oh, yeah—and put bitters on the grocery list.)

      A more complicated answer would be to include other spicy or herbal ingredients like absinthe, Benedictine, Campari, and so forth, but there you start to get farther afield from the true Old-Fashioned, along the lines of the Improved Whiskey Old-Fashioned .

  1. This is definitely one cocktail where less is more! I tried several versions before settling on one with just a sugar cube, bitters, whiskey and an orange peel. Divine.

    1. “Wrong” is a pretty hard word. Tonic in an Old Fashioned is definitely outside the norms, though. The classic way to make an Old Fashioned was to put some sugar in the bottom of the glass, add the bitters, and often a splash of soda to help dissolve the sugar (and muddle) before adding the whiskey. I’ve never tried the tonic route, but I would guess it would add a slight additional bitter note the the drink from the quinine.

      And the question brings to mind the curious case of the Wisconsin Old Fashioned, typically made with brandy, and often topped with something like 7UP, sour mix, or even lemonade.

      The Old Fashioned is such a great model—it leaves a lot of room for experimentation. Thanks for the comment!

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