How to Make an Old Fashioned Cocktail

Easy to make and delightful to drink, the Old Fashioned has been a cocktail staple in some form for over two centuries.

As a drink that’s been around nearly as long as Western democracy, there’s bound to be some confusion about the origins of this tasty libation — and some disagreements about the best way to make one.

Don’t worry — we’re not here to judge. Whether you’re a cocktail purist or willing to try anything new, here’s everything you need to know about the Old Fashioned, plus a couple of recipes to let you indulge your inner mixologist.

Origins of the Old Fashioned

The drink we now call the “Old Fashioned” has been around in some form since the opening of the 19th century. Back then, cocktails were simple affairs, usually made with a spirit like rum, gin, or brandy, some water, a dash of bitters, and a bit of sugar. These were the precursors to the more classic cocktails of today like the Sazerac, Manhattan, and Sidecar.

The Cocktail Craze

By the 1860s, America and parts of Europe were in a cocktail craze. Bartenders and amateurs alike grew increasingly inventive and creative, coming up with exciting new ways to mix spirits, bitters, fruits, and other ingredients.

The first cocktail recipe book, “How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant Companion,” was released in 1862. This book included a recipe for an Old Fashioned Gin Cocktail made from gin, sugar, water, and bitters — a precursor to the modern Old Fashioned. But most recipes in the book, instead of maintaining their simplicity, reflected the modern love for imaginative drinks.

Recipes like the Baltimore Eggnog mixed milk, egg, sugar or simple syrup, Madeira wine, cognac, rum, and nutmeg into a creamy concoction. The Grand Royal Fizz blended gin, orange and lemon, maraschino liqueur, cream, and powdered sugar topped with seltzer for a creamsicle-like drink.

The amateurs got into the fun, too. Famous French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec invented his own cocktail called the Maiden’s Blush — a preparation of absinthe, mandarin liqueur, red wine, champagne, and bitters. He said he wanted it to create the sensation of “a peacock’s tail in the mouth.”

Back to the Classics

So what does all this creativity have to do with the classic Old Fashioned?

According to legend, purists liked their cocktails in the “old-fashioned way,” and would order them accordingly — simply a spirit with sugar, bitters, and a splash of water.

The recipe is said to have been created at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1880s. A bartender created the drink for regular customer Colonel James E. Pepper — a well-known bourbon distiller. Colonel Pepper later brought the drink to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel bar, and it spread from there.

It seems that what the Pendennis Club did was less “invent” a cocktail, and more make a classic drink in the way Colonel Pepper preferred. Then they — or perhaps the Colonel himself — gave it a nostalgic name at a time when everything was new, new, new! But if you ask anyone from Louisville, they’ll happily claim the title of “Home of the Old Fashioned.”

a main drinking an old fashioned

2 Classic Old Fashioned Recipes

Ask a bartender how to make an Old Fashioned, and you may get a few different responses. These days, many recipes include muddling a cherry and an orange together with a dash of simple syrup and bitters before adding your bourbon and ice.

But for our classic recipe, we’re looking back to George Kappeler’s “Modern American Drinks,” first published in 1895.

The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

  • Prep time: 2 min
  • Total time: 5 min
  • Number of servings: 2
  • Calories: 50 cal

Ingredients:

  • 2x sugar cube
  • Splash of water
  • Angostura bitters
  • 4 oz bourbon
  • 2x lemon pees

Step 1: Place one sugar cube in each whiskey glass and dissolve it well by muddling it with a little water.

Step 2: In each glass, add 2 oz bourbon, two dashes Angostura bitters, an ice cube or two, and the lemon peel.

Step 3: Stir with a bar spoon and serve.

The 20th-Century Old Fashioned

If you like a little more fruit in your Old Fashioned, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The orange and cherry we often see in today’s Old Fashioneds were added to “temper” the bite of the bourbon or whiskey. After all, in its original form, the Old Fashioned is basically straight whiskey with a bit of sweetener.

The first known recipe to include the now-ubiquitous cherry-and-orange combo came from “What’ll You Have” by Julien J. Proskauer, a 1933 cocktail recipe book. There have been many versions of this fruity recipe, but here’s our recipe for the best “modern” Old Fashioned.

  • Prep time: 2 min
  • Total time: 5 min
  • Number of servings: 2
  • Calories: 50 cal

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp double-strength simple syrup
  • 4 oz bourbon or rye
  • Angostura bitters
  • Orange peel
  • 2 Luxardo cherry

Step 1: Combine simple syrup and 2 dashes Angostura bitters in a rocks glass. Add 2 oz bourbon or rye, and stir.

Step 2: Add a large ice cube or 3-4 smaller ice cubes in each glass. Stir until chilled.

Step 3: Garnish with an orange peel and Luxardo cherry.

Notes:

  • To make double-strength simple syrup, combine 2 parts sugar to 1 part water in a saucepan over low heat. Warm until sugar is dissolved. Let cool and store in the refrigerator. Using syrup ensures that all the sugar is dissolved in the drink and prevents grittiness.
  • Luxardo cherries are richer and less candy-like than Maraschino cherries. If you haven’t tried one, you won’t regret it.
  • Instead of an orange wedge, we like a piece of orange rind. A wedge will make your drink pulpy and can overpower the other flavors in the glass.

3 Old Fashioned Alternatives

The simplicity of the Old Fashioned recipe means you can have a lot of fun with it! Indulge your inner 19th-century cocktail creative and mix and match to develop your own take on the Old Fashioned. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Switch Your Spirit

Traditional cocktails made in the “old fashioned” way were made with all sorts of spirits. Try yours with brandy, gin, or even tequila.

For a tequila Old Fashioned, try updating your fruit to something more tropical like a grapefruit peel.

2. Warm It Up

Cocktails and punch drinks back in the 1800s were often served warm instead of iced. On a chilly day, try topping your Old Fashioned recipe with a couple of ounces of hot water to make a warm, comforting sipper.

Try one when you have a cold as an alternative to that classic remedy, the Hot Toddy.

3. Try a Bitter Breakthrough

Angostura bitters are an aromatic blend of gentian (a bitter root), herbs, and spices that create a distinctive aroma. But there are other kinds of bitters as well.

Orange, lemon, grapefruit, coffee, and chocolate bitters can all be fun additions to your Old Fashioned. Just don’t overdo it! With all bitters, a little goes a long way.

However you like your Old Fashioned, cocktails are supposed to be fun! So don’t let the purists intimidate you out of experimenting with your own ideas. After all, if it weren’t for experimentation, we wouldn’t have any cocktails at all.

Old fashions pair well with the following cannabis strains.

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Brooklyn native, accent-having, travel lover, wordsmith and bud enthusiast. Versed from the streets of NYC, mixed with some world influence, writer/editor and medical user extraordinaire, JJ is here to tell you like it is and guide you to the finest. Brooklyn's favorite feminine stoner, your neighborhood contributor, wrapping leaves like a bandage and bringing you along for the ride.

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