The Basics Tips & Tricks

The Dos and Don'ts of Making an Old Fashioned

bourbon old fashioned cocktail / Tim Nusog

The Old Fashioned is arguably the grandfather of all cocktails. Simple yet complex, subtle yet bold, it’s easy to see why the three-ingredient classic, believed to date back to the early years of the Republic, remains so revered.

Ordering an Old Fashioned at a bar will earn you an approving nod, but it’s also the perfect cocktail to master at home. Though it’s relatively easy to mix, it’s just as easy to screw up. These are a few generally accepted tenets to observe before taking a crack at an Old Fashioned.

DO: Opt for a quality whiskey

An Old Fashioned is essentially a delicious vehicle for enjoying your favorite whiskey, so choose wisely (no need to break the bank, but choose at least a solid midrange whiskey). Tradition calls for rye, but many people prefer bourbon, and either works. The only other ingredients the drink requires—bitters and sugar—work together to enhance the spirit with a subtle sweetness. Over the years, the cocktail has evolved to sometimes include an orange slice, club soda and/or a cherry, but they’re not traditional to the drink.

DON’T: Dump a sugar packet in the glass

Sugar is one of the three pillar ingredients, so it deserves some thought. The classic way to make an Old Fashioned starts with placing a sugar cube at the bottom of a glass, adding a few dashes of bitters and a splash of water and muddling until it’s completely dissolved. This is still a great option, but many people use simple syrup for ease and convenience. Bottom line: Either will do, but absolutely never just dump in a sugar packet.

DO: Be tactful with bitters

An Old Fashioned calls for two to three dashes of bitters—no more, no less—that are added to the glass once the sugar or simple syrup is in. While the amount seems small, having too many or too few dashes can dramatically change the taste makeup of the drink. The type and quality of bitters matters too. Angostura bitters are always a safe and excellent choice, but orange bitters also work well.

DON’T: Add soda water

Besides sugar, whiskey and bitters, any other ingredients are uncalled for, though orange slices, cherries and soda water are commonly seen in Old Fashioneds. Many believe these extras were added during Prohibition to help cover up the sting of moonshine. In terms of the soda water, we recommend leaving it out entirely to honor the classic recipe and your well-chosen whiskey. Use a splash of regular water to dissolve the sugar cube instead.

DON’T: Muddle your cherries

If you prefer your Old Fashioned with a cherry, just make sure not to muddle it in the glass. This is not a drink that needs a bold punch of cherry flavor or fruit floating around. Instead, add it later as a garnish, and make sure to opt for a brand such as Luxardo over the neon maraschino cherry, which is full of chemicals and dye.

DO: Add an orange peel, if you’d like

Of all the additions to the Old Fashioned over the years, the orange peel has become the most welcome. However, it’s also best not to add an entire orange slide and muddle it in the glass. Instead, use only a portion of the peel, shaved off the fruit with as little pith as possible, as your garnish.

DO: Use large ice cubes

Back in the 1800s, ice cubes were typically cut two inches on each side, unlike the tiny versions we have today that are made to melt more quickly. If you want to be a purist (or at the very least impress your guests), keep some large cubes in the freezer ready to go. Your cocktail will remain chilled without diluting too quickly.

DON’T: Shake the cocktail

Old Fashioneds are to be stirred, never shaken. In general, you should shake any cocktail with citrus juice, egg whites or cream, and stir all others. Use a bar spoon to steadily stir the cocktail for a maximum of 30 seconds—you want to chill it without melting the ice cube down too much.

DO: Use an Old Fashioned glass

That’s what they’re for, after all. Cheers!