Cocktail & Other Recipes By Spirit Rye Whiskey Cocktails

Improved Whiskey Cocktail

Improved Whiskey Cocktail / Tim Nusog

The Old Fashioned is hardly a drink that needs improvement: The simple combination of bourbon or rye whiskey, bitters, and sugar has been one of the most beloved cocktails in existence for 200-plus years. 

But the dictionary definition of “improve” doesn’t quite apply to drinks. And at one time, what we now call Old Fashioned-style cocktails were synonymous with, well, cocktails, which almost always followed the same formula: spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. The Old Fashioned as we know it today was simply called the Whiskey Cocktail, a Brandy Old Fashioned was a Brandy Cocktail, and so on. In the late 1800s, bartenders began “improving” these drinks with the addition of imported European ingredients such as maraschino liqueur, absinthe, and curaçao. Because of the limited cocktail canon at the time, this handful of ingredients made a world of difference in the possibilities of drinks-making. 

Jerry Thomas, widely considered the godfather of modern bartending, was the first to record and categorize cocktails with his 1862 book The Bar-Tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks. And in the 1887 edition, he introduced the Improved Whiskey Cocktail in print, along with the Improved Brandy Cocktail and the Improved Gin Cocktail. Thomas’s version called for bourbon or rye, Boker’s or Angostura bitters, gum syrup (a sweetener similar to simple syrup that includes gum arabic), maraschino liqueur, absinthe, and a lemon twist. “The flavor is improved by moistening the edge of the cocktail glass with a piece of lemon,” he wrote.

Thomas’s recipe has evolved over the years. As is the case with an Old Fashioned, you can use bourbon or rye whiskey, depending on your preferences; the latter will produce a slightly spicier drink. And if you prefer using sugar to simple syrup and don’t mind an additional step, you can muddle a sugar cube with the bitters and water before adding the other ingredients. The “improving” ingredients are used in limited quantities—just a barspoon of maraschino liqueur and a dash of absinthe—but they lend the drink additional complexity. Many modern recipes also call for a dash of Peychaud’s bitters in addition to Angostura, rendering a drink that is similar on paper to New Orleans’ most storied cocktail, the absinthe-rinsed Sazerac

Today, this old-school drink has modern-day appeal; in fact, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail is one of the most popular orders at Brooklyn’s Clover Club, where it is made with rye whiskey and has been on the menu since the seminal cocktail bar opened in 2008. Whether or not you think the Improved Whiskey Cocktail is a “better” version of the original is up to your preferences, but it’s well-worth a try.


  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey

  • 1 barspoon maraschino liqueur

  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup

  • 1 dash absinthe

  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

  • 1 dash Peychaud’s bitters

  • Garnish: lemon twist


  1. Add all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.

  2. Strain into a rocks glass over one large ice cube.

  3. Garnish with a lemon twist.