How to Make an Old-Fashioned
There’s a reason this uncomplicated and satisfying whiskey cocktail has been delighting drinkers for generations. Get our classic, best old-fashioned recipe, then explore 8 creative riffs.
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At first glance, an old-fashioned may seem a little plain compared to many popular cocktails. How interesting can a drink really be with nothing but whiskey, sugar, bitters, and a little fruit over ice? But that simplicity is the genius of this drink that first became popular in the late 1800s and continues to delight modern drinkers.
In fact, the old-fashioned is so foundational that there’s a style of glass named after it.
A perfect version depends on choosing the highest quality ingredients, and on respecting the recipe by not adding too many modifications. The old-fashioned is, at its core, a respite from all things fancy and complicated.
Keep reading to learn how to make a classic old-fashioned cocktail. I’ll answer all your questions about this traditional cocktail, share bartending tips, step-by-step instructions, and some creative riffs on the old-fashioned recipe to inspire you. And I've woven in some interesting cocktail lore, because good stories make your drinks taste even better.
Jump ahead to:
Is this your first encounter with the old-fashioned? Let’s get warmed up by learning the origins and key ingredients in this classic cocktail recipe.
Who made the first old-fashioned?
We don’t know who made the very first old-fashioned cocktail. But we do know the first written reference to one was in the Chicago Tribune in 1880, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich’s book Imbibe. By 1895, prominent bartenders in New York, New Orleans, and Cincinnati had published the old-fashioned in their recipe books.
How did the old-fashioned get its name?
The old-fashioned emerged as 1880s bartenders were inventing complex drinks with then-novel ingredients like syrups, fruit juice, vermouth, and absinthe, according to Imbibe. Drinkers who longed for straightforward drinks from the good old days were mystified and annoyed by these new concoctions. “The Old-Fashioned was a drinker's plea for a saner, quieter, slower life,” Wondrich writes. They “learned that saying ‘old-fashioned Whiskey [or Gin or Brandy] Cocktail’ would bring forth a drink made with a slug of (hopefully) good booze, lump of sugar instead of syrup, ice in the glass, and none of that vulgar shaking and straining and garnishing.”
What’s in a classic old-fashioned recipe?
While we know the old-fashioned today as a whiskey drink, in its infancy it wasn’t unusual to find an old-fashioned drink made with gin or brandy.
Just like there’s a formula for a bride — something old, new, borrowed and blue — there’s a template for what some experts call a true cocktail: spirit, bitters, sugar, and water. The Sazerac follows this formula; so do the vieux carre, Manhattan, and the old-fashioned, which was typically made with a twist of lemon or orange peel, too. Legendary barman Dale DeGroff created the modern old-fashioned when he added a muddled Luxardo cherry (the true maraschino cherry) and orange slice, and a garnish made of the same.
What’s the best whiskey for an old-fashioned?
I recommend letting your palate and your budget guide you to the best whiskey to use in an old-fashioned cocktail. You want a quality bourbon, rye, or blended whiskey, but nothing too expensive since you’re adding sugar and fruit to it. An old-fashioned recipe will dilute as the ice melts. If you want your drink to taste more sweet and mellow, then the best bourbon will be an 80-proof bottling. If you like a spicier drink, opt for rye whiskey. If you want to taste more of the spirit as you sip, then look for an overproof whiskey that’s bottled at a proof higher than 80.
If you don’t have a favorite house brand of American whiskey, you might consider Bulleit, a Kentucky bourbon made with a lot of rye, giving it a more intense flavor. For a sweeter drink, choose Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon. Barton 1792, a higher-proof bourbon with a French heritage, stays flavorful as the ice in your old-fashioned melts. I also like Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey, inspired by Nearest Green, the Black man who taught Jack Daniels the art of distilling.
How is an old-fashioned served?
An old-fashioned tastes and looks best when it’s served in its namesake old-fashioned glass. This low and wide glass is often called a lowball, in contrast to the taller and skinnier highball glass. It’s also called a rocks glass because it’s usually presented full of ice.
As you hold the drink, the warmth from your hand makes the ice melt, diluting the spirit just slightly as you sip.
How to make an old-fashioned step by step
As long as you have a few bar tools and some basic ingredients in the house, it’s easy to make a delicious old-fashioned cocktail. Here’s how to create the drink, following my classic old-fashioned recipe.
1. Collect the ingredients
Photo by Brittany Conerly
A famous French chef once told me the most memorable dishes only have a few ingredients, and the same is true of classic drinks like the old-fashioned.
• Whiskey. Grab your favorite bourbon whiskey or rye from your bar cart. (See above for suggestions.)
• Brown sugar. Head to the kitchen to combine a little brown sugar and water to make a brown sugar simple syrup.
• Angostura bitters. I like the notes in old-school Angostura bitters, originally created as a digestive tonic. You can also check out options for aromatic bitters at your favorite spirit shop.
• Fresh orange. You’ll need a slice for muddling and a slice for garnishing the drink.
• Club soda or still water.
• Luxardo cocktail cherries. Bright red maraschino cherries are easy to find, but they lack the deep cherry flavor you want for an old-fashioned. If you invest in a jar of these candied Marasca cherries from Italy’s Veneto region, be sure to store them outside of the fridge. If they’re chilled, the dark red syrup around them will crystallize and turn hard.
• Ice. See details that follow.
2. Assemble your tools
You really don’t need much equipment to make a proper old-fashioned cocktail. The most important is the glassware — only a lowball glass, aka old-fashioned glass, will do.
To make your drink, you’ll need a muddler, a metal or wooden tool with a flat end for gently releasing the oils and flavors from the cocktail cherry and the slice of orange. The next must-have bar tool is a cocktail jigger — a mini measuring tool for making cocktails. Free-pouring alcohol looks cool in the movies, but measuring in a jigger ensures your old-fashioned and other cocktails will taste the same every time.
3. Choose your ice
There are two ways to go when it comes to chilling your old-fashioned cocktail: You can use small ice cubes like the kind from a refrigerator ice machine or ice cube tray, or you can opt for one large ice cube or sphere instead. The smaller cubes will melt faster, giving you more dilution and a mellower-tasting drinking. A larger piece of ice will melt more slowly, so you get a bolder whiskey flavor. It all depends on what kind of drinking experience you enjoy.
4. Muddle the fruit
Photo by Brittany Conerly
To an old-fashioned glass, add 1 teaspoon brown sugar simple syrup, 3 dashes bitters, 1 orange slice, 1 Luxardo cherry, and a splash of club soda. Muddle to gently smash the cherry and orange slice to a pulp to release all the juice and oils. Remove orange rind.
5. Build your drink
Photo by Brittany Conerly
Add ice and 2 ounces whiskey, then stir for a minute or two to chill the spirit.
6. Garnish and enjoy
Thread the remaining orange slice and cherry onto a cocktail pick. Garnish and enjoy your classic old-fashioned cocktail.
Get Yummly’s classic old-fashioned recipe
An homage to a simpler time, the old-fashioned cocktail that I created for Yummly still satisfies with the simple magic of mixing whiskey, sugar, bitters, and fruit over ice.
8 ways to change up your old-fashioned
The original old-fashioned cocktail is a straightforward affair that’s invited variations and enhancements over the decades. Here are some of my favorites.
The grape-based spirit brandy predates the emergence of grain whiskey by a few hundred years, so this recipe that’s popular in Wisconsin has even more retro bonafides. You’ll love the way the brandy adds fruity roundness to the flavors.
This delicious rum riff on the old-fashioned was created by a bartender at The Clover Club in New York. If you want a slightly less sweet cocktail, choose a rhum agricole from Martinique or Guadeloupe since they’re free of added sugars.
The very first version of the old-fashioned was very simple indeed, getting its lift from just the oils in a strip of orange zest. You’ll love the directness and ease of this version.
If you love the soul-warming sensation of drinking a hot cocktail, then this toddy is for you. The recipe adds honey syrup and lemon to Rock & Rye, a whiskey that’s like a pre-batched old-fashioned thanks to being infused with cherry, orange, cinnamon, and rock sugar.
Once you taste this old-fashioned made with a real vanilla bean and a splash of vanilla syrup, you may not want to drink the cocktail any other way.
Grilling a ripe peach adds a few extra steps to the recipe, but believe me, the resulting old-fashioned enlivened with the bright, juicy flavor of this summer fruit is worth the effort.
A chai brown sugar syrup with the aromatic notes of cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger found in the Indian tea is a wonderful way to spice up an old-fashioned cocktail.
Whether you own a smoker or not, this recipe explains how to elevate the classic old-fashioned recipe with a whole new smoky dimension.
More favorite cocktail recipes
If you’re interested in explore more classic cocktails like the Manhattan, white Russian, and whiskey sour, check out these next articles.