"When properly made, this cocktail [the Old Fashioned] can represent the
pinnacle of the bartenders trade. When done improperly, which is
more often the case, it can be a disaster of mediocrity."
- Robert Hess, co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail
The original definition of a cocktail was any sugar, spirit, and bitters. Conforming to that definition, the two drinks in today’s cocktail lexicon, are the Sazerac and the Old-Fashioned. For this post I will be walking you through (one of) the correct ways to make an Old-Fashioned in the classic sense.
Holding the current title of invention, the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky is reputed to have invented the Old-Fashioned in the 1880s. Though it is much more likely the name resulted from someone asking the bartender to fix a cocktail “the old fashioned way.”
The Old-Fashioned is one of the most personal of all drink one can have, yet in recent years this drink has somewhat “lost its way.” Whether it be made with club soda, orange syrup, or muddled fruit at the bottom of the drink – all of which I don’t think have proper places in the drink – one or all of these ingredients can produce a negative experience. This "Old-Fashioned" pictured above is the bastard product of years walking down that wrong path. And no, I will not tell you where I bought this ugly thing. Hopefully though, this post can lead us back to the right path.
Old-Fashioned Recipe (1 Serving):
1 sugar cube
1 splash of water (approx. 1oz.)
1 small piece of orange zest
2-4 dashes of Angostura Bitters
2 oz (quality) bourbon whiskey
Step 1: Place the sugar cube in an Old-Fashioned (lowball) glass. Soak it down with 2-4 dashes of Angostura bitters and a short splash of water. Don’t be afraid of bitters. Bitters is a term which came out of the 18th century and today would much better be described as cocktail spice or seasoning. Binding and blending all the flavors together, you don’t notice when it’s present in the drink, but if it’s not there you really notice something is missing. I tend to really like bitters so don’t be squeamish about being generous.
Step 2: Crush the sugar with a muddler, chopstick, strong spoon or anything you have on hand. I generally cut out my orange peel while I wait for the sugar to soak up all the water and bitters, making it easier to crush. Just make sure to avoid the “ice-tea effect” by grinding the sugar into a completely clear solution. You can use simple syrup if you prefer, but sugar cubes are preferable because it allows you to adjust the level of sweetness without further diluting the cocktail (ex: 2 sugar cubes w/ same splash 1 oz. water).
Step 3: As said before, I don’t think orange syrup or muddled fruit have a place in the drink but you do want to add the layer of flavor which comes from the citrus, so adding a small piece of orange zest is a necessary. Using the zest (making sure you have only the zest and not the bitter white part of the orange) you need to press the orange peel with a muddler into the bitters and sugar. What you are doing is releasing and expressing the oils, so make sure not to tear apart the zest. At this point you should have a wonderfully fragrant foundation.
Step 4: Next I add the bourbon, or rye if you like. I generally prefer the spiciness which comes along with a nice rye whiskey but some great substitutes for a rye would be bourbon with a high rye mash bill such as Basil Hayden or Bulleit Bourbon (my “go-to bourbon”). Both provide the spiciness you get from rye but still maintaining some of those nice vanilla undertones of a quality bourbon.
*You can switch up step 4 and 5 if you like. This is just my personal way of doing things.
Step 5: Add a large ice cube. Stir and combine – till it’s nice and cold. I understand that many won’t have large ice cube trays, so regular freezer ice is fine. The reason why large ice is preferable is because the dilution rate will be much slower, thus allowing for a more pleasant experience. For those who object to using freezer ice – I’m not going to detail that out – that’s a bit demanding for a homemade cocktail.
Step 6 (Optional): Add 1-2 maraschino cherries. Now this is also important: make sure you buy quality maraschino cherries. The worst thing you can do is build a quality drink and then destroy it with maraschino cherries dipped in High Fructose Corn Syrup. And believe me, there is a difference in taste.
Step 7: Enjoy!