What to Drink if You're a Whiskey Lover
The Old-Fashioned (often spelled without the hyphen) is one of the oldest cocktails around. Indeed, it’s a pretty good example of how the original cocktails were made way back in the early 1800s (more about that later). In its day, it was the king of cocktails.
Today? Not many people drink it, or have even tasted it. In fact, the only thing many people know about it is that it’s the elixir of choice of Don Draper, of Mad Men fame.
Too bad. If you crave whiskey, no other mixed drink better showcases the deep, rich flavor of good old American bourbon or rye. And few drinks are easier to make: You need only whiskey, bitters, and sugar.
With the weather turning chilly, now is the perfect time to enjoy this bracing piece of Americana. So why not try the drink that your great-great-great-great-great grandfather used to enjoy? Nothing is more old fashioned than that.
Recipe: The Old-Fashioned Cocktail
Although today most people want whiskey in their Old-Fashioned cocktails, you can actually use any liquor — gin, brandy, tequila, whatever. That’s because the name refers more to a style of drink-making (an algorithm) than to the actual drink itself. Originally, an Old-Fashioned was made with whatever liquor the imbiber fancied.
The classic way to make an Old-Fashioned is to take a sugar cube, add a couple of dashes of bitters, and then just a bit of water — maybe a teaspoon, only what you need to dissolve the sugar. Then you muddle (mash) them together until the sugar dissolves. At that point you add ice, then the liquor you prefer (whiskey, I say!), and stir to combine. Drink. That’s it. Some people prefer to stir the whiskey and sugar mix together before adding the ice.
Of course, when a drink is this simple, some people can’t resist “improving” it. Over the years, many variations have appeared — some quite outlandish. Certain bartenders top the glass with water (plain or charged). Wrong! (See the Notes). Or they add an orange slice (or orange juice) to the sugar, and muddle that along with the bitters. Or they use a bit of maraschino cherry juice. Also wrong, although some of those variations are tasty (again, see Notes).
Really, the only way to improve the drink is to substitute Simple Syrup for the sugar cube. These days, sugar cubes can be hard to find and simple syrup is much easier to use (though it’s fun to muddle the cube). Purists may shudder (“lump sugar or nothing!” they’d say), but simple syrup makes a better drink.
This recipe serves 1, and takes about 5 minutes to prepare.
- 1 teaspoon Simple Syrup (you may want a bit more or less depending on how sweet your bourbon is)
- 2 dashes of Angostura bitters (you can substitute another type of bitters, but Angostura makes a dandy Old-Fashioned)
- 2 ounces of bourbon or rye (bourbon is the way most people enjoy this drink, but rye makes a superior drink, IMO)
- lemon twist, orange twist, or maraschino cherry for garnish (optional; I usually skip the garnish, but see the Notes)
- Add the simple syrup and bitters to a “rocks” (short) glass (see Notes if you’re using table sugar). Add ice cubes (not a lot — 3 cubes, 4 at the most) and pour the whiskey over the cubes.
- Stir well to combine (you may want to let the drink rest for a minute after stirring, so all the flavors meld together). Garnish (or not), and serve.
- Today we call all mixed drinks “cocktails.” But originally cocktails were “short” drinks meant to be drunk in the morning as a “bracer.” The first cocktails contained liquor and bitters, and often a sweetener. But nothing else. So the Old-Fashioned is an excellent example of an original cocktail (although if you’re drinking this in the morning, I suggest you examine your soul).
- In the last third of the 19th century, cocktails became more elaborate and varied. That’s when the Martini and Manhattan were born, for example. At some point, the drink we’re featuring today came to be called the Old-Fashioned to distinguish it from “modern” (for that era) drinks. People who ordered it wanted a drink made in the “old fashioned” style, with just sugar and bitters added to liquor.
- Bourbon is the whiskey most people use in an Old-Fashioned. You can use any name brand you prefer (I like Evan Williams for mixed drinks, but you might want to use a better brand).
- The sweetness of bourbons varies from brand to brand, so you may want to adjust the amount of simple syrup you use when making this drink to balance it properly.
- Rye is spicier than bourbon, which is why I prefer to use it in Old-Fashioneds. If you can find it, Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond makes a superb Old-Fashioned.
- For another drink that showcases rye (or bourbon, if you prefer), you might want to try the Manhattan cocktail. It’s a close second to the Old-Fashioned as a vehicle for whiskey, IMO — although sweet vermouth makes it a more complex drink.
- If you don’t have simple syrup, add about a teaspoon of sugar to the glass, along with the bitters and a teaspoon of water. Mash the sugar and liquid together with a spoon until the sugar is dissolved. Then add the ice and the whiskey.
- Quite a few Old-Fashioned recipes tell you to top off the glass with water (still or sparkling). Why? I’m not sure, although I suspect it’s to make the glass look more full. Most “rocks” glasses are large, and this drink will only half-fill them (unless you’re making a double, of course). In any case, I advise against adding water, which makes for a weak, unsatisfying drink. Melting ice provides all the dilution this cocktail needs. Drink it with added water, and you’ll understand why the drink went out of style!
- Some of those water-topped recipes also specify frantic stirring — for 2 or 3 minutes. And it’s true that the drink has better flavor if the sugar, bitters, and whiskey are well blended. But you really need to stir for only 20 seconds or so when you use simple syrup — the syrup and bitters will blend with the whiskey on their own.
- Some recipes call for muddling an orange twist or slice with the sugar. Those who advocate doing so claim that the skin of the twist abrades the sugar, helping it dissolve. And this drink does taste pretty good with just a hint of orange flavor. But if that’s what you want, I suggest adding an orange twist (or slice if you really want more orange) as garnish.
- Some people like to add OJ and/or maraschino cherry juice to their Old-Fashioneds. Kingsley Amis, in Everyday Drinking (a reissue of 3 of his books on drinks), suggests adding a teaspoon of maraschino cherry juice and a “hefty squeeze” of fresh OJ. Not bad — I’ve made his recipe — but not as good as my version, IMO.
- A lemon twist is my favorite garnish for this drink. But most people prefer an orange twist or slice, and maybe a maraschino cherry. I often omit the garnish entirely — particularly when I’m channeling my inner Harry Truman (for more on that, see below).
The Trumans’ Favorite
In the past, we’ve featured several cocktails that were favorites of US presidents. John F. Kennedy liked the Classic Daiquiri. Richard Nixon was partial to a Mai Tai. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed mixing his own Dry Martini. And FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, favored the Old-Fashioned. In fact, both Truman and his wife, Bess, enjoyed having one each night before dinner.
One story says that on their first evening in the White House, the Trumans asked the White House butler to serve them Old-Fashioneds. He complied, mixing a heavily garnished drink.
They drank them silently — and subsequently told the butler to make them less sweet. Mrs. Truman reportedly said, “They make the worst Old-Fashioneds here I’ve ever tasted! They’re like fruit punch!”
Over the next few evenings, the butler struggled to mix Old-Fashioneds to the Trumans’ liking. But none of the standard recipes satisfied them. Finally, in despair, the butler simply poured bourbon over ice — no sugar, no bitters, and definitely no garnish — and served them what amounted to bourbon on the rocks.
Mrs. Truman was delighted, reportedly saying, “Now that’s the way we like our Old-Fashioneds!”
Well, bourbon on the rocks is a good drink, but it’s not really an Old-Fashioned. You do need the bitters. And most people want a bit of sugar (although if your bourbon is on the sweet side, you might want to skip that).
But all the elaborate “fruit punch” juices and garnish? I’m with Bess Truman. Ixnay on that.
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I love Mad Men and it's a brilliant show. Of course I like Don Draper too... :) My husband started to enjoy drinking whiskey 2 years ago. The smell is too strong even when I'm washing the glass (but I'm not much of a drinker to begin with), but he really enjoys it. Your photos look so beautiful. It's like a display at a museum! It made me thirsty and want to drink up - but then I'd easily get drunk, even with a sip of it. Very low tolerance. Haha.
My father was a whisky drinker. I agree with Nami, I find it too strong. (yeah says the girl who drinks tequilla straight up haha)
I wish my dad was still alive for me to fix him a glass of your old fashioned whisky... awww this makes me miss him.
John, this is one of my husband's favorite cocktails. When we were in Charleston, we stopped at a very well know bar in Charleston that makes all the famous cocktails...even hand cutting a large cube of ice for each drink.
My husband is a Scotch drinker and because of him so am I now. Though I have to admit that I only like it straight up, no water and no ice. Needless to say I've never had a Whiskey or Scotch cocktail. Yours sounds delicious! I love the first photo, it looks straight out of a magazine. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Nami, Mad Men is fun, isn't it? I love whiskey, but I think for most people it's an acquired taste. And of course if you have a very low tolerance, you'll probably never have that chance. You should steer your husband towards this recipe - I'll bet he'd enjoy it. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Malou, I don't know - tequila straight up? And you find whiskey too strong? ;-) Hopefully this brings back happy memories of your dad (including making you miss him). Happy Wednesday to you, too, and thanks for your comment.
Hi Karen, it's a great drink - and really not ordered that much anymore. The whole ice thing is kinda interesting - there are quite a few bars (or so I've read) that are making their own ice and hand cutting it. Sounds like fun! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Spicie Foodie, Scotch is the one alcohol that, to me, doesn't work well in this drink. It's worth trying, but cut way back on the sugar if you do. But there really aren't that many cocktails out there that require Scotch - probably because Scotch straight up is perfect! Thanks for your comment.
Thanks for the delightful history. I've come to the same conclusion as you regarding the Rittenhouse/Angostura combo, too. It's become my favorite drink lately.
That looks like a classic and very satisfying drink my friend - didn't realize there was so much background :D
Choc Chip Uru
I am not much of a scotch drinker but my parents are so I have made many of these drinks. Yours is beautiful!
Hi Gordon, Rittenhouse is a really nice rye. There are many boutiques ones that are supposed to be good and I haven't tasted, but I'm not really motivated to - I'm quite happy with Rittenhouse (Wild Turkey also has a higher-proof rye that is worth drinking). Thanks for your comment.
Hi Uru, it is a classic. And you should know by now, with me there's almost always background when it comes to drinks! Thanks for commenting.
Hi everydaymaven, if you like bourbon or rye, this is one terrific drink. Better, IMO, than serving either of these on-the-rocks - though that's enjoyable too. Thanks for the kind words, and the comment.
You really take good shot of drinks, John. Maybe I should ask for some pointers from you when I want to shoot some drinks. I really admire your skills my friend. Have a good week. :)
I can't even imagine drinking a cocktail in the morning. LOL I think that would send me straight back to bed for a long, long snooze. ;)
I liked reading the history of the old-fashioned. My husband would like this drink, but for me it would be strong.
What a gorgeous cocktail glass! My parents both love Old-Fashioneds...and my MIL drinks a dry Manhattan! I prefer my cocktails whiskey free :)
PS...didn't know that Gooey Butter Cake originated in SL! Fun fact!
Wow this looks like autumn in a glass. I've never tried this drink before although that's no surprise. You really need to create a calendar to sell with photos of your drinks - one a month. At least to give as gifts to friends for the holidays. You're amazing!
Hi Ray, thanks for those very kind words (and the comment, of course). Ask away! I'd be happy to provide answers, although most of what I've learned is trial and error. In particular, it takes awhile to figure out how to light the glasses so the reflections are doing what you want them to.
Hi Carolyn, it's amazing to me, too! It's interesting how times have changed - I really prefer my cocktails in the evening! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Words of Deliciousness, because this drink is essentially straight whiskey (diluted a bit by the melting ice), this is a pretty strong drink. It's a good one, but I suspect a lot of people would prefer something that's been tamed by including other ingredients. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Lizzy, if you prefer whiskey free drinks, this one isn't for you! Whiskey has really gone out of favor over the last few decades, so it's always fun to bring back a classic. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Vicki, it is indeed autumn in a glass - good line! Thanks for your very kind words, and your comment.
As soon as I saw this, especially with the beautiful retro glass, I was thinking of Mad Men! You've photographed this so well, Mr Riffs. It's certainly not my drink of choice but it does look pretty xx
Well, I'll be darn! I've been drinking an old-fashion for years and didn't even know it. :) I love my bourbon with a little sugar and a twist of lemon. Next time I'll thrown in a couple dashes of bitters and...there you go! Great drink for the cooler weather that's for sure. I like the idea of using simple syrup. Will have to get that made for the weekend! Another great cocktail post my friend!
It's 6pm and it's been a helluva day. I could relax with one of these right now :) Is there a delivery service?
The Old Fashioned always reminds me of back home in WI; everyone drinks them there. I absolutely love that first shot - gorgeous!!
Hi Hotly Spiced, I'll bet the reason an awful lot of people even know about this drink is because of Mad Men! I thought that glass would be perfect for this drink - it's well over 100 years old! Thanks for your kind words and your comment.
Hi MJ, ;-) That's funny! Do add the bitters - they really add a bit of niceness to bourbon. Kind of like adding salt to meat before grilling it. And simple syrup is great - I always have some in the 'fridge, and am always finding new uses for it. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Maureen, there is a delivery service, but unfortunately the delivery person gets mighty thirsty making that long trip, and the glass will always arrive empty. ;-) Darn delivery guys. Thanks for your comment.
Hi Kristy, I lived in Milwaukee for a bit, and I do remember the Old-Fashioned (and Manhattan) being very popular. Though most of the time people made them with brandy (I know you know, but for everyone else, brandy is a wildly popular spirit throughout Wisconsin). Thanks for your comment.
You have lost me now with whiskey - not my drink at all. Back to the rum...
However, your photo does bring back memories of my grandfather, who drank whiskey in a glass just like that one. I watched a bit of Mad Men but then got distracted for some reason.
I can't convince myself to drink whisky. It's just not for me I'm afraid. But I love this glass. It's beautiful.
Hi Suzanne, I haven't tried it, but I'll bet this would be a nice drink when made with a good amber rum. Man Men is kinda interesting and I've seen a couple of episodes, but my problem is I just don't watch TV. We watch so little, we've even ditched cable in favor of a roof top antenna! Kinda old-timey, just like that glass. ;-) Thanks for your comment.
Hi Marta, no reason to drink something you don't like! There are plenty of other good things out there to imbibe. Isn't that glass great? It belonged to my great-grandmother (or maybe my great-great-grandmother; I should check on that). Thanks for your comment.
The drink looks great. I love the glass.
Love Mad Men, don't love whisky. That's my dad's preferred vice. I love the history lesson I get every time I read your posts. Yeah, no cocktails for this momma in the morning, thank you!
Hi Asmita, isn't that a pretty glass? The drink is quite good, but it looks super in that glass! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Laura, if you don't like whiskey, this drink isn't for you! Yeah, you can make it with other liquors, but there are probably better cocktails with your name on them. Thanks for your comment.
This was my Dad's cocktail and I remember seeing him mix them for himself occasionally. I never acquired a taste for them. I bet I'm old enough now (please hold your chuckles) to give it another shot. I need to find a good bourbon or why bother? Thanks, John, for the recipe and iI agree with the previous commenters that your photos are well-shot.
Hi ChicagoJohn, it's really that vintage of a cocktail - although there are hardcore fans that drink it, most people don't. Heck, I drink all sorts of cocktails and enjoy both bourbon and rye, and it's one of those drinks that I have only occasionally. Don't know why, because it's a really good drink, as tasting it for this post reminded me - definitely one I'll have more frequently in the future. Thanks for the kind words, and your comment.
I love a good Old-Fashioned! Next best thing to a Manhattan :)
Hi Julie, I agree that the Manhattan edges out the Old-Fashioned for me, too. Particularly when made with rye. Thanks for your comment.
What a beautiful color! A delightful cocktail, I'm sure. Love your gorgeous pictures.
Hi Rosa, it's a great cocktail. Thank for your kind words (you're such a great photographer that they mean a lot coming from you) and your comment.
I have an old bottle of whiskey that belonged to my grand-dad. I never know if whiskey can be kept for a long time like wine or not so I'm paranoid to drink it. Lol.
Love this drink. Reminds me of my folks parties. They used to be great mixers. I need to up my game.
Gorgeous!!!!! Looks lovely.
Hi Kim, in general, if the whiskey bottle is not opened it will keep for almost forever. Much longer than wine because it's higher proof; but unlike wine, it won't improve in the bottle. Anyway, if it's not been opened, it's probably fine. If it's been opened? Probably safe, but because of oxidation I'd suspect it's flavor has declined. But it won't kill you! So give it a taste, and if it's good, you'll know. And if it's not - well, you'll know that too! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Tia, it is rather pretty, isn't it? ;-) Thanks for your comment.
I'm not a big Whiskey drinker I must say, I find them a bit too strong and smokey. The few times I've tried them I felt the liquid burning as it went down my throat and my mouth was left numb. :P Yuye seems to like the stuff though and has a few bottles stashed away.
I ADORE your glass! It's so pretty!
Hi Jenny, Scotch is rather smokey, but bourbon and ryes aren't, so you might like them better. But they definitely have a flavor that you'll notice, so maybe you will still find them too strong. The sugar in this drink helps moderate the liquor, but it's still a pretty "strong" drink. I'll bet Yuye would like it, though. Thanks for your comment.
I will give this a try, my friends right now are into whiskeys
Hi Raymund, it's a good drink! Most people like this with bourbon, so that what I'd try first. Hope your friends enjoy it! Thanks for the comment.
I'm not a whiskey drinker, but this is...sexy! :) However, I'll stick to Champagne! :) Cheers!
Hi Sarah, nothing wrong with Champagne! One of my favs, too. But for those that enjoy whiskey, this is a wonderful drink. Thanks for the comment.
I love the rich color of this drink. My husband is a whiskey fan. This sounds like the perfect Monday night football drink for him!
Hi MotherRimmy, isn't the color pretty? And if your husband enjoys whiskey, this would indeed be a wonderful drink for him on Monday nights! Thanks for the comment.
Simple sugar does make a better drink but I love crushing the sugar too! This sounds like an incredible cocktail and I'll take my glass now!:)
Hi Baker Street, crushing sugar is fun, which is an excellent point - sometimes making the drink isn't all about efficiency, but what's fun, too. I'm happy to serve you one! Thanks for your comment.
John just sent me here to check out your blog and your drinks:D Love it all.. I'm going to be subscribing by email now! xx
Hi Just a Smidgen, glad you enjoy it here! Thanks for subscribing, and for commenting.
I love this! I actually only have had bourbon/old-fashioned with a twist of lemon in the past few years, never before. Love it. I bake with it but never had discovered and experienced the pleasure of the drink! Reading your post makes me wonder why I waited so long? Great blog!
Hi petit4chocolatier, doesn't bourbon have a wonderful flavor? Baking with it is nice (we do a lot of that, too), but it's also so good as a drink. One of my faves. Thanks for your comment.
I hope you don't mind Mr. and Mrs. Riff; if I reblog your link on my reblog page?
Hi Judy, by all means post the link! Thanks for that, and for asking.
I wanted to tell you that I continually go back to your website for the absolute best advice for cocktails. Your notes sense of humor always leave me chuckling as a gather my ingredients. I’m a habitual recipe devotee and when I compare your recipes to other sources I defer to you consistently. Thank you!
Hi Susan, what a nice comment! Thanks so much for letting us know that you enjoy reading our post. :-)
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