Old Fashioned – How to Make it

Old fashioned cocktail ingredients

In November we are celebrating Old Fashioned Week (1-10th Nov) so I thought it would be a good time to share some history. As with many classic cocktails, the history of the Old Fashioned cocktail is rather messy, but this is what we know.

Old Fashioned started as Whisky Cocktail.

In the early 1800s Whisky Cocktail was made with whisky, sugar and bitters (later also with ice). It would be used to cure aches and pains or perhaps simply the symptoms of a hangover. Cocktails used to be simple three-ingredient drinks – replace whisky with any other spirit (gin, rum, brandy…) and you have yourself another cocktail. The Whisky Cocktail was not known as an Old Fashioned until the 1880s.

It is believed that a bartender in Louisville created the fruit version of the Old Fashioned cocktail in honour of Colonel James E. Pepper (a bourbon distiller). Colonel Pepper spent a lot of time in Waldorf-Astoria in NYC and is said to have introduced them to this version of the Old Fashioned cocktail.

Or maybe as Gin Cocktail.

Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks (published in 1862) offers a range of original recipes dating back to the early days of mixology. A recipe for an Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail sounds very familiar: ‘Crush a small lump of sugar in a whiskey glass containing a little water, add a lump of ice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a small piece of lemon peel, one jigger Holland gin. Mix with a small bar spoon. Serve.’

This is believed to be the first record of an Old Fashioned.

No fruit salads, please.

At one point, bartenders were experimenting with various ingredients to jazz up these old and ‘boring’ cocktails. Many added absinthe, curacao, maraschino and various herbal liqueurs. Also, during Prohibition the smell (and taste) of whisky was easily disguised by using orange, cherries and other fruit. In fact, during Prohibition, Islay whisky was the only whisky legally allowed into the US as it could go under medicine due to its high iodine level. Many served these whiskies as Old Fashioned cocktails with extra orange to disguise the strong aroma.

Today, the cocktail is simply garnished with orange or lemon peel.

Although Wisconsin didn’t get the memo.

This is rather strange, but somehow Old Fashioned has had a complete makeover in Wisconsin. Their Old Fashioned consists of brandy, premixed sugar syrup and bitters, Sprite, orange slices and cherries. Sometimes even mushrooms or olives.

There is nostalgia in the name.

Once people got fed up with overly fruity cocktails with too many ingredients, they started to crave something classic and simple, such as the good old-fashioned Whisky Cocktail. It is true that Old Fashioned lost its way and for a while was considered an old people’s drink, but luckily it has enjoyed a revival and made it back to the mainstream.

How to make it

Old Fashioned cocktail

Over the years the cocktail has had many variations. Which way do you like yours?

1 Bourbon and rye are the most common spirits, but you could also make an Old Fashioned using scotch, especially peated if you’re making the ‘prohibition version’. Bourbon makes the drink a bit sweeter, while rye adds spice.

2 You can use either sugar syrup or a sugar cube. Sugar syrup can be made with either white caster sugar, brown sugar or Demerara. When using a cube, the technique is to wet it with Angostura bitters and a tiny splash of water or soda water. Use the flat end of the bar spoon to turn it into a syrup.

3 Use aromatic bitters. The most common would be Angostura Aromatic Bitters, but these days many other brands are also available.

4 Avoid turning your cocktail into a fruit salad by simply using an orange or lemon twist. Many prohibition versions included muddled cherries and orange slices, but these will mask the flavour of the spirit. When using peated whisky you can slightly muddle the orange peel.

5 These days many cocktails served in an Old Fashioned glass (rocks glass) tend to come with a huge single lump of ice. In this case, you should stir the cocktail with the ice in the glass part of your Boston shaker before straining it over the large cube. Then add your garnish.

If you’re not bothered about the looks, simply combine all the ingredients directly into the Old Fashioned glass, stir with ice and add a few extra cubes during stirring.

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  1. Ah the classic old fashioned. Even though I’m not much of a cocktail person I’ve always got time for an old fashioned.
    The best I‘be had have included Belgrove Brown Rye and Woodfords which had been smoked with apple wood. Although I used to make them for me and my mum with monkey shoulder so I guess I’ve tried it all!
    Keep on waffling,

    1. Sounds really nice. I will need to try Monkey Shoulder as just got a bottle and it’s yet to be opened.

  2. The old fashioned is probably my go to cocktail when I’m out. At home, I used an agave nectar instead of sugar cube.

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