Old Fashioned – Classic Cocktails Recipes Every Bartender Should Know
This post is the start of the series Seven Classic Cocktails. We are going to start by exploring the Old Fashioned. Due to it’s long history the Old Fashioned maybe most noteworthy of all classic cocktail recipes. In this post we are going to look the original classic cocktail. We’ll start with the history of the drink. Then we will look at how to make it. And in conclusion we will take a look at some ideas and inspiration for way to build on the original recipe.
The History of the Old Fashioned
Many classic cocktails lay claim to being the oldest. There are certainly several mixed drinks that have been around longer but the Old Fashioned has the distinction of being defined in print as a “cocktail” earlier than any other drink we are currently aware of.
In 1806 Harry Croswell wrote in The Balance and Columbian Repository :“Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters—it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head”
Spirits, sugar, water and bitters. As simple a formula for a cocktail as one could ask for. It’s hard to say how long people were drinking this concoction prior to this account, but we do know that a hundred years later people were referring to this recipe as the “Old Fashioned” way to take your cocktail.
If you are interested in origins of the idea of the cocktail and the Old Fashioned in particular there is more than enough material here, here and here. For our purposes however we are more interested in the making and drinking of this classic cocktail.
William Boothby, referring to the Old Fashioned in his 1908 book, World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, wrote “The idea of making any liquor into a cocktail was conceived only for the purpose of removing the sharp, raw taste peculiar to all plain liquors. Therefore it is not necessary to use a combination of cordials, essences or lemon juice as some ‘bar creatures’ do, but by adhering strictly to the herein created directions you will be enable to sever these famous American decoctions in as fine a style as the highest salaried mixologist in the land.”
Over a century later this is still great advice. You will be in the company of some of the world’s best bartenders if you can make a great Old Fashioned. One of the great strengths of the Old Fashioned is that it is both spirit forward and relatively easy to drink. When it is at its best it enhances and extends the flavors of the base spirit without being overly sweet or watered down.
The Old Fashioned is definitely in the canon of classic cocktails and deservedly so, but it has never achieved the perennial icon status of the Martini. Over the years it has disappeared and been revived several times. During the prohibition years it became a overly sweet fruit heavy drink lengthened with soda water. More recently a highly vocal contingent of historical purists have returned the drink to its simple and best form.
How to Make It
Restraint is the key to making a great Old Fashioned. In its purest form It really is no more than a couple of ounces of base spirits sweetened with a touch of sugar and balanced with a couple dashes of bitters. Today you will find Bourbon or American Rye in an Old Fashioned. Brandy was more common historically. Historical variations on the Old Fashioned include Gin, Rum, Scotch and a variety of other base spirits. Because the Seven Classic Cocktail recipes are a framework for experimentation. I would encourage you to try this formulation with whatever combination of spirits, sugar and bitters appeals to you.
Old Fashioned Recipe:
- 2 oz (60 ml) base spirit
- ¼ oz (10 ml) simple syrup
- 2 dashes bitters
Start with a straight sided rocks glass or a double rocks glass. This style of glass is also known as an ‘Old Fashioned’ or a ‘Double Old Fashioned’ glass for a reason. A nice heavy glass feels great in the hand and has a classic feel. Cut crystal or something more elaborate can be used if you are feeling fancy. But this is a simple elegant cocktail on its own and it presents well in a simple clear walled glass.
You can use refined sugar, cane sugar, demerara or turbinado sugar. The purpose of the sugar is to take some of the heat of the alcohol off of the base spirit not to add a lot of sweetness. A little sugar goes a long way. In its truest form you will stick to a neutral flavored sugar. Because we like to try new things maple syrup, molasses, honey and flavored syrups all make for interesting variations.
Angostura is the go to here. A dash or two to taste. When you are looking to try something new there is a whole world of flavors to explore in these little bottles. Macerate a blend of herbs, spices and botanicals in high proof alcohol and yo get bitters. Bitters are liquid seasoning in cocktails. They are a great way to bring balance, depth and nuance to a drink.
When you make an Old Fashioned with any of the high quality bourbons or straight rye whiskeys on the market these days you simply cannot go wrong. Take a trip back in time with a good brandy. It is how it was made in 1806. While it may not satisfy the purists you should try this formula with a range of base spirits.
Because it is a spirit forward cocktail it is best to stir the Old Fashioned stirred with ice and strained over fresh ice in your rocks glass.
You don’t need ice in an Old Fashioned. If you prefer to drink it neat go ahead. Take your time. You could also stir it with ice for chilling and dilution and strain it into your glass without ice. Most people do serve it with ice. If you are going to use ice use one big chunk. Enough to nearly fill your glass. The ice should be large enough that it sits on the bottom of the glass and doesn’t float.
An orange zest expressed over the drink is all you really need here because it is such a simple drink. The orange oils bring a nice lift and brightness to the drink and a bit of visual interest.
The point of this post and this Classic Cocktail Recipes series is not to teach you how to make the best Old Fashioned or even the one true cocktail. What I want to do is to expose the structure of the drink. I hope you can use this as a platform to use your creativity to develop new and interesting recipes based on this classic recipe.
Create your signature variation on the Old Fashioned with some of the following ideas. Experiment with these suggestions, ideas and random thoughts.
Cognac Old Fashioned
Drink your Old Fashioned the old school way. If you want to get really fancy with it pick up a bottle of pre-phylloxera brandy from 1806. It’ll set you back a bit, but isn’t it worth it to drink up history?
There are some really interesting white spirits showing up out there. Sheringham Distillery on Vancouver Island makes one of my favorite white spirits. The William’s White brings some interesting flavor notes with its use of Red Fife Barley. Try pairing that with an interesting bitters.
Obviously rum is our base spirit here. Unless that’s too obvious. I always associate molasses with oatmeal. So you could try rum or you might use something like the Balvenie 12 Year Old Double Wood. It has some nice oatmeal and brown sugar notes that could complement the molasses. Raisin bitters anyone?
Black Walnut & Sorghum
You should try using a good bourbon with Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters or these Toasted Pecan Bitters and sorghum syrup for a southern inspired take.
When you want to try something new use 100% pure, Grade A Medium maple syrup. Good old fashioned French Canadian aromatic tree sap. It pairs beautifully with spirits aged in oak. For something different try it with an oak aged gin like the Oaken Gin we make a Victoria Distillers.