Another Old-Fashioned the hard way: the Conference Cocktail

I learned two important things when I first encountered the Saratoga cocktail. For starters, I discovered that I like the Saratoga even more than I like the Manhattan—and that’s saying something.

But more significantly, I discovered that rye whiskey and brandy go astonishingly well together.

And the knowledge of that happy combination led to delight when I came across Brian Miller’s riff on the Old-Fashioned, the Conference cocktail.

My first encounter with the Conference started when my bride gave me a copy of Death & Co’s Modern Classic Cocktails. I started with the table of contents, as usual, then jumped directly to the section about my favorite food group, “Old-Fashioned Variations.”

Miller’s whiskey-and-brandy Conference is the first drink in the list.

The Conference really delivers on the whiskey and brandy combination. Miller could have been channeling Don the Beachcomber’s rum-blending tiki heritage with this one—it’s a blend of two whiskies and two brandies (and two bitters and two citrus garnishes).

The Conference Cocktail, photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Conference Cocktail

Miller tells this story about making the Conference for the first time in 2008:

“One of our servers asked me to make her something stirred and boozy. So I threw four of my favorite spirits into an old-fashioned template, splitting the base four ways. All these brown spirits needed something to tie them together. Avery Glasser (of the bitters company Bittermens) happened to be sitting at the bar, and he suggested trying his mole bitters. It was like lacing up a shoe.”


Here’s the way Modern Classic Cocktails describes the Conference:

Brian Miller, Death & Co., 2008

  • ½ oz Rittenhouse 100 rye
  • ½ oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
  • ½ oz Calvados [Bouchard Grand Solage]
  • ½ oz Hine H Cognac [Pierre Ferrand 1840]
  • 1 tsp Demerara syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters

Garnish: 1 lemon twist and 1 orange twist

Stir all ingredients over ice; strain into a double rocks glass over one large ice cube. Garnish with lemon and orange twists.


It’s pleasant that Miller specified two of my favorite whiskies, Rittenhouse rye and Buffalo Trace bourbon. The combination gives a nice spice note to the whiskey side of the equation.

Miller calls for Hine H Cognac; having none, I substituted my current standard brandy, the Pierre Ferrand 1840, and it works very well here. It’s a slightly sweet, pleasantly floral, and combines very nicely with the whiskies and the Calvados.

The Boulard Grand Solage Calvados has a nice, clean apple nose and flavor, and gives the Conference a pleasant apple fruit note that balances nicely the spices of the rye-heavy whiskies.

Pierre Ferrand Cognac label (detail), photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.The Demerara sugar syrup is always a good choice with brown spirits. It has a molasses richness that pairs well with whiskey. Depending on your preference for sweetness, you could add anywhere between a barspoon and a quarter-ounce of 1:1 syrup.

As for the bitters, Angostura is the traditional choice for an Old-Fashioned. The Bittermens Xocolatl is a natural flavor pairing with whiskey—sort of like bacon for bartenders—and helps to tie the spices of the whiskey to the fruitiness of the brandies. The result is a rich roundness in the overall flavor profile of the drink.

So what does the Conference taste like? The nose is light, mildly fruity, and mostly driven by the orange garnish. There are notes of the Angostura spices.

First sip is chocolatey, combined with a fruitiness from the brandies. The mid-palate is where the apple shows up clearly, and then the drier, woodier flavors of the whiskies take over in the swallow.

The Conference definitely raises the ante on the basic Old-Fashioned formula. The four-spirit blend is a far more sophisticated flavor combination than the traditional single-spirit version could ever hope to be, and offers an alternative approach to the Jerry Thomas era’s idea of “improving” the Old-Fashioned with liqueurs, absinthe, and so forth. Complex spirit combinations can do the job at least as well, and suggest a wide-open field for experimentation.


3 thoughts on “Another Old-Fashioned the hard way: the Conference Cocktail

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  1. I recently tried an old fashioned variation with calvados and cinnamon syrup I had left from a recent tiki party, and it was wonderful. The dryness of the calvados against the warmth of the cinnamon was wonderful.

    Funny you say that about the Old Fashioneds section of that book, I did the same thing but with the Daiquiri variations.

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