How to Make an Old Fashioned

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In one of the best series-opening episodes ever, Don Draper is sitting in a crowded Manhattan bar circa 1960 as he works out taglines on the back of a napkin. He points to his empty glass and tells the waiter, “Do this again. Old fashioned.” It’s suave, it’s cool, it’s delicious — both the scene and the drink.   

Look closely and you’ll see an orange (lemon?) slice and a cherry in that inaugural Mad Men old fashioned. Is that the “right” way to make it? Is there a wrong way? And if so, why?

For those who just want a recipe without having to scroll past all those dang words here’s a fairly standard old fashioned recipe:

The Standard Old Fashioned Recipe

  1. Add a sugar cube to a rocks glass
  2. Douse the sugar cube with three or four shakes of Angostura bitters and a little water
  3. Smash the sugar cube repeatedly with your muddler
  4. Nearly fill the glass with ice
  5. Pour in three ounces of whiskey, bourbon, or rye
  6. Drop in one maraschino cherry and an orange twist
How to Make an Old Fashioned

The oldest old fashioned

The first definition of a “cocktail” appeared in a New York newspaper in 1806, where the libation was described as a mixture of spirits, sugar, water, and bitters — that’s pretty much describing an old fashioned. But it wasn’t called that yet. 

As the history of the old fashioned goes, first there was a drink. It was a good drink. It was known as the whiskey cocktail, and appeared in the first American cocktail book (back in 1862) as a mixture of gum syrup, bitters, whiskey, and a lemon twist over shaved ice. 

But then, as with so many drinks, embellishments were made. Liqueurs were mixed in. The whiskey cocktail was “improved.” Some felt the drink had lost its way and demanded a return to the good old days and simplicity of the original. They demanded a return to the “old fashioned” whiskey cocktail. And the old fashioned was born. 

As spelled out in George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks from 1895, the old-fashioned whiskey cocktail contains a single chunk of ice, sugar, water, bitters, whiskey, and a lemon peel. With the bar spoon left in the glass.

How to Make an Old Fashioned

The Vintage Old Fashioned Recipe

  1. Drop a lump of sugar in a rocks glass and dissolve it with water
  2. Add two dashes Angostura bitters and a single large ice cube (an ice sphere looks particularly nice)
  3. Pour in a shot of whiskey (an ounce and a half)
  4. Pop a piece of lemon peel in there 
  5. Mix with a small bar spoon, leaving the spoon in the glass to serve

“Ruined” once again

The story of the old fashioned’s genesis mirrors so many barside mixology arguments. What’s the “pure” form of a cocktail? What’s the “real” way to make a given drink? Despite its very name being a cry for the unadulterated form of a cocktail, the old fashioned has undergone a heck of a lot of changes over the years. You can see that just in the differences between the “standard” and “vintage” versions above. 

Once Prohibition mercifully ended, the old fashioned came back to life, but it came back with a few more points of flair. Orange slices, cherries, even pineapple were added to the mix, either as garnish or muddled right in with the sugar and bitters. Club soda was swapped in for water and the presentation resembled something you’d get in a 1920s Havana nightclub.

The reasons for the change? Could be a holdover from Prohibition days when added fruits and flavors masked the rotgut tastes of bootlegged whiskey and bathtub gins. Could also be that people waking up from thirteen years of imposed austerity wanted to live it up a little. Either way, the bar guides of the day called for fruit.

While purists may cry when they see anything more than the most ascetic lemon peel gracing an old fashioned, it’s important to remember that cocktails are meant for enjoyment. This isn’t coding, Variations are not errors. The fruited version is the one I was taught when I first arrived behind the bar, and with its bitter sweetness from the fruit and peel, it’s a perfectly tasty interpretation of the classic.  

How to Make an Old Fashioned
Old Fashioned Cocktail

The Fruited Old Fashioned Recipe

  1. Drop a sugar cube in a rocks glass
  2. Douse with a few shakes of Angostura bitters
  3. Add a maraschino cherry, stem removed, and half an orange wheel
  4. Muddle the fruit and the cube together
  5. Almost fill with ice
  6. Pour in three ounces of whiskey or rye (bourbon is a little too sweet here)
  7. Serve with two cocktail straws

Everything old is everything new

As with all amber-hued drinks not based on vodka or Malibu Rum, the old fashioned went away in the 80s and stayed gone until the craft spirits revolution of the new millennium. It’s revival is a welcome return. The bitters and sugar bring out and marry the flavors of the spirit. Plus it’s all built in the same glass, so you don’t have to shake, flip, or juggle like you’re Tom Cruise in Cocktail making a kamikaze. 

Wherever you land on your old fashioned preferences (I recommend letting those preferences change with the mood of the evening, the tenor of your disposition, and the musical selection) an old fashioned is a delightful way to enjoy whiskey.

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