An Old Fashioned, that classic blend of whiskey, bitters, sugar, and water is only as good as the spirit that goes into it. The perfect whiskey, says Flavien Desoblin, owner of The Brandy Library and Cooper and Oak in Manhattan, is "one that has a higher strength and can pierce through the veil of orange and bitters."
Robert Krueger, head bartender for JF Restaurants, agrees. "You need something sturdy enough to survive the stirring down and the dilution as the ice melts," he says, "so you're looking at a floor of 90 proof." His best advice for the perfect Old Fashioned: Make sure your ice is clean, be judicious with the citrus—don't rub it on the glass rim—so it doesn't overwhelm the drink, and don't be afraid to experiment. Try stone fruit in summer, swap the simple syrup for Cointreau or Maraschino liqueur, or add viscosity with gum arabic.
Our top pick is the Four Roses Single Barrel because it has a high proof and big flavors that still show up after dilution.
Whichever way you make it, says Krueger, "it's all about big, chewy, delicious flavors." And those start with the proper whiskey. Here are our expert's top picks for the best whiskeys to use to make that flawless Old Fashioned.
Best Overall: Four Roses Single Barrel
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 50% | Tasting Notes: Stone fruits, Cocoa, Caramel
According to Desoblin, a high rye content "makes the cocktail come alive with character," and this bourbon does the trick. With its rye-forward mash bill, it has the spicy, herbal, and fruity notes that an Old Fashioned asks for. And at 100 proof, it's powerful enough to "show up strong even after dilution," Krueger notes. "Its big fruit flavors are really satisfying."
Best Budget Bourbon
Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting notes: Honey, Citrus, Butterscotch, Vanilla
You’d think that a bourbon containing no rye might be kind of one-note for an Old Fashioned. But that’s not the case with Maker’s Mark.
Johnny Swet, founding partner of JIMMY at Modernhaus SoHo in Manhattan, is a fan of this “great budget bourbon” for the adventure in contrast it provides as you sip the drink. According to Swet, it offers “a little heat up front,” followed by a “pretty, rounded finish.” That’s the kind of arc that keeps you sipping.
Best Top-Shelf Bourbon
Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey
Region: New York | ABV: 46% | Tasting notes: Oak, Caramel, Vanilla
New York’s original bourbon, this one is made from 100% corn grown in state and aged in small barrels for maximum boldness. With a sweet, caramel-meets-vanilla character, it’s just the type of whiskey that works beautifully in an Old Fashioned. Swet enjoys its “great intensity” and the way it “lingers for awhile” on the palate with each sip. His formula is two ounces Hudson Baby Bourbon to half an ounce of simple syrup poured over a big “ice glacier” that cools the spirit down quickly.
Best Bourbon: Buffalo Trace
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Orange, Molasses, Honey
From America's oldest continuously operating distillery, named for its location on the route where the buffalo once crossed the Kentucky River, this rich bourbon is relatively low in alcohol, but that doesn't keep it from shining in the cocktail. "Its orange spiciness stands up in an Old Fashioned," says Krueger, "so the whiskey doesn't disappear."
Read Next: The Best Bourbons
Best Single-Barrel Bourbon: Eagle Rare 10 Year
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Oak, Toasted bread, Vanilla
"Buffalo Trace (Distillery) makes a lot of great bourbons, but the stuff they keep around and select for a single barrel after 10 years is always totally satisfying," says Krueger of this special bottling. "Its sweet, toasted flavors are just delicious." Another advantage? "The quality is top shelf, but price-wise, it comes in lower than you'd think." So you don't need to hesitate before using it in a cocktail. "It's a great fit for an Old Fashioned," says Desoblin, "as its woody notes stand out."
Best Wheated Whiskey: Woodford Reserve Wheat Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 45% | Tasting Notes: Baked apples, Mint, Apple blossom
"You can get some menthol notes on wheated whiskies that gives them a crispness, which is a high note in an Old Fashioned," says Krueger. "The fresh-herb flavor is what I like about wheated bourbons." With the wheat at 52% of the mash bill, this bottle delivers a floral, fruity punch.
Read Next: The Best Gifts for Whiskey Lovers
Best Barrel Proof: Elijah Craig Barrel-Proof
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 66% | Tasting Notes: Butterscotch, Cinnamon, Oak, Apple
"It's so rich and complex, you will definitely taste the bourbon itself," says Desoblin. Even though it's such a big bourbon, he declares it is "also very elegant," with a good balance between power and layers of flavor. His final verdict? "It's like everything you want from a bourbon."
Best Budget Rye
Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey
Region: Kentucky | ABV: 43% | Tasting notes: Cinnamon, Pie crust, Oak
Aged three years and at a lower proof than most on this list, this venerable rye whiskey is “just a nice, reasonable rye that gets the job done” for a mellower Old Fashioned than most. Popular, affordable, and balanced between spice and grain flavors, it’s an imminently mixable classic that’s a bartender’s go-to for all sorts of cocktails. And with a price as gentle as its proof, this rye lets you mix up drinks for a group of friends and not break the bank.
"I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Old Overholt because it was my introduction to rye whiskey. It's often my go-to for Old Fashioneds when I'm in an old school bar because I know they'll most likely have a bottle behind the bar." — Prairie Rose, Editor
Best Top-Shelf Rye
WhistlePig Rye 10 Year
Region: Vermont | ABV: 50% | Tasting notes: Orange, Caramel, Dark chocolate, Spice
Edgy and spicy with a creamy, chocolately finish, this all-rye whiskey from snowy Vermont packs a punch at 100 proof. It started out aging in bourbon barrels for caramelly, citrusy notes that give way to a chocolately, creamy finish and a velvety mouthfeel. That’s just the texture you want in an Old Fashioned. “Whistle Pig Rye just has this darker, intense, luxurious smoothness,” says Swet, and that makes for a knockout drink.
For big, boozy flavor and complexity, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof Bourbon (view at Caskers) does the trick. But if it’s spice you’re after, WhistlePig 10 Year Rye (view at Drizly) is your bottle.
What makes a whiskey good for an Old Fashioned?
In general, you need a whiskey that can hold up to the flavors of the fruit and bitters and the sweetness of the simple syrup, so with few exceptions—like the popular Old Overholt—you’ll want to look for one that’s over 90 proof. A whiskey with a lush texture also accentuates one of the hallmarks of an Old Fashioned: its silkiness.
Is it a waste to use expensive whiskey when making cocktails?
If cocktails are the way you drink whiskey, then money should be no object. Plus, the purity of a great Old Fashioned ensures that the whiskey flavor will be front and center, highlighting the spirit no matter its price.
How long does whiskey keep?
In theory, your whiskey will never go bad. It fact, it can outlast you. But for the best results, keep it cool, capped, and in a fairly dark place. That, plus making sure it’s stored upright, will assure that it won’t evaporate.
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.