The Basics Tips & Tricks

6 Things You Should Know About the Old Fashioned

What there is to know about this granddaddy of cocktails.

A dark, caramel colored Old Fashioned in a thin-walled rocks glass, with a single large ice cube and a curved swath of orange peel sits on burlap
Tim Nusog

Dark and boozy, a little sweet and a little bitter—is there another whiskey drink more satisfying than the Old Fashioned? The drink defies its stuck-in-time title, and while it certainly went through some less-than-ideal incarnations over the years, who hasn’t? Luckily, the Old Fashioned is one cocktail that has never gone out of style. These are a half-dozen fun facts to stir conversation and thoughtful sipping.

1. It’s the Very Definition of Cocktail

Spirit, sugar, water, bitters—this is the technical definition of a cocktail. In a duo of articles in the Federalist newspaper from Hudson, New York, “The Balance and Columbian Repository,” “cocktail” is mentioned in print twice in May 1806, with the second laying out these four components, which, as a matter fact, sound an awful lot like the Old Fashioned.

2. Forget the Shaker

An Old Fashioned is a single-vessel, build-it-in-a-glass, stirred cocktail. It’s one of its most wonderful, versatile charms, as you can make an impressive version of it anywhere, anytime—in your home bar, on a plane with a sugar packet, on a picnic blanket. The choice of bourbon or rye is up to your pleasure, just measure out a solid two ounces, pour it over a muddled sugar cube with a few dashes of Angostura Bitters, give it a stir, and add in an ample ice cube. If you have an orange or a lemon (or both) on hand, garnish with a nice piece of citrus zest. Boom. 

3. It Began as the Whiskey Cocktail

The Old Fashioned is a cocktail of evolution, and there is no one person to pin for its so-called invention. What we do know is that by the time cocktail recipe books began appearing in the late 19th century, what we would call an Old Fashioned today was often under the title of Whiskey Cocktail.

Perusing the pages of different iterations of barman Harry Johnson’s “Bartenders’ Manual” is an excellent example of seeing that change over time. The 1887 first edition offers up the Whiskey Cocktail with gum syrup, ice, Angostura or Boker’s bitters, a couple of dashes of curaçao, and whiskey. By 1887, he ditched the Angostura. By 1900, he swapped the syrup for raw sugar and called for a couple of dashes of curaçao or absinthe. All iterations got a lemon twist expressed over the top.

4. You Can Make It with Brandy (Thanks, Wisconsin)

“The Old Fashioned is a perfect receptacle for Wisconsin’s beloved brandy, a spirit cherished and carried over by the many German immigrants who settled in the state in the late 19th century,” says Wisconsin-born Robert Simonson, author of “The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail with Recipes & Lore.” “These days, I doubt most Wisconsinites think hard about the origins of the Brandy Old Fashioned, where it came from and why they drink so many of them. It would be like questioning heavy snowfall in January. Wisconsin, more than most states, is a great incubator of old drinking styles and traditions. Once they latch onto something, they don’t let go, and they’re not easily swayed by trends, which they rightly eye with skepticism.”

5. Sweet Is a Thing

Wisconsonians so love their Old Fashioneds that there are multiple variations on the regular. Order it sweet, and you’ll get a splash of lemon-lime soda. Order it sour, and you may get sour mix. Sweet versions also stand out for their extra punch of bitter with the sweet, according to Sara Roahen, a Wisconsin native and former food critic for “Gambit” in New Orleans. “There’s an Old Fashioned, and then there’s the Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet, a Wisconsin-centric concoction that goes heavy on the Angostura.”

6. The Sugar Makes a Difference

“The argument about higher-proof spirits in cocktails comes down to balance,” says Jackie Zykan, the master taster for Old Forester bourbon and an Old Fashioned devotee. “You don’t want to disguise ingredients; you want everything to be present. With the Old Fashioned, it depends on what you’re using as your sugar source and how much. If I only have one-to-one simple syrup to work with, I don’t mind using a younger bourbon between 80 to 90 proof and tend to go lighter on the sugar increment. If we are at 91-plus proof and the whiskey has some age to it, I prefer a heavier syrup such as two-to-one demerara sugar as the sugar source.”