The Old Fashioned is one of the earliest whiskey cocktails in modern record, thought to have been developed in the early 1800s. And like with many classics, there are always going to be riffs—the Bonfire Old-Fashioned and the Wisconsin Old Fashioned to name a few.
But at its core, this classic cocktail is a simple combination of whiskey (usually bourbon or rye), sugar and bitters. Regardless of complicated backstories and historical bartender peacocking, the Old Fashioned itself remains one of the easiest to make, three-ingredient drinks in the modern cocktail canon. Here’s everything you should know about it.
The Origin of the Old Fashioned
Like many historic drinks, it’s hard to pinpoint their exact origins. And the Old Fashioned is no exception.
According to The Old Fashioned: An Essential Guide to the Original Whiskey Cocktail by Albert W. A. Schmid, until fairly recently, most historians believed the cocktail originated in Kentucky’s Pendennis Club. However, author and drinks historian David Wondrich found a mention of the drink in the Chicago Tribune in 1881, a year before the club opened.
It’s hard to nail down exact historical proportions, as the strength and quality of distilled spirits, or even which spirits were used, have varied over time. In Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide (later titled How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion), the first cocktail book published in the United States in 1862, liquid volumes are often measured in “wineglasses,” which has been taken to mean around two ounces of spirit. Early iterations of what would become this whiskey-based drink instead used Holland gin, and many modern purists claim bourbon is the only option, despite rye having been an early favorite.
No matter the origin story, there’s no denying that this drink has been enjoyed for over a century and is a staple in the American cocktail canon.
Where Does the Name “Old Fashioned” Come From?
Like the actual cocktail’s story, the origins of its name are just as muddled—pun intended.
According to The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore by Robert Simonson, this classic’s original name was simply the “Whiskey Cocktail.” Early iterations simply included whiskey, bitters, ice and a “particle of lemon.” However, in the mid- to late-19th century, American bartenders began getting more experimental and started adding ingredients like absinthe, maraschino and more.
Then in 1886, an article in the publication Comment and Dramatic Times criticized this new wave of experimental bar culture, calling it overly complicated.
“The modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it,” said the editor, Leander Richardson. “A bartender in one of the most widely known New York establishments for the dispensation of drinks was telling me the other day that there had set in an unmistakable stampede in favor of old-fashioned cocktails.”
The name stuck, and the rest was history.
How to Make a Classic Old-Fashioned Cocktail
Put sugar cube in rocks glass. Add bitters and 1 teaspoon water, adding extra bitters dashes to taste. Use muddler to break up sugar cube and muddle until dissolved into a paste. Add whiskey and stir. for 5 seconds. Fill glass with ice and stir for additional 10–15 seconds to chill.
How Do You Drink an Old-Fashioned Cocktail?
While many enjoy imbibing this classic as is, this drink is wonderfully customizable. Be sure to serve this cocktail in a rocks glass, as it allows you ample room to properly muddle the sugar cube and any other ingredients you want to add. For instance, some variations of this recipe call for muddled orange slices and maraschino cherries, which make for a sweeter drink.
As far as the base spirit, your possibilities are almost endless. But what’s the best one? As far as whiskey or bourbon go, the best is generally whatever you prefer. Bourbon is a better choice for a sweeter drink, while rye may be preferable for those looking for drier, spicier or peppery notes. Just avoid any brands that have added sugar, like many flavored whiskeys, as it will change the balance of your drink.
The Best Bourbons for an Old Fashioned Cocktail
If you’re looking for an affordable, widely available bourbon that makes a great classic Old Fashioned, Elijah Craig Small Batch is hard to beat, and Jefferson’s Very Small Batch Bourbon is a fantastic entry level bottle from the producer.
If you’re looking for options in the $50 range that provide depth, the bold and dry profiles of Angel’s Envy Bourbon or Uncle Nearest 1856 take to the addition of sugar and bitters, while Bib & Tucker 6 Year works well for those who like a touch of natural sweetness in their whiskey.
The Best Ryes for an Old Fashioned Cocktail
For a rye Old Fashioned, High West Double Rye can usually be found for less than $30, and you really won’t fail with classics like Old Overholt as an affordable under $20 choice. Rittenhouse is a rye standard for cocktails in bars everywhere, but, bottled-in-bond at 100 proof, could benefit from a splash of water if you don’t want too strong a drink.
At a higher price point, Van Brunt Stillhouse’s Empire Rye has unique East Coast characteristics that work well in an Old Fashioned, and Colorado’s Golden Moon Gun Fighter Rye is a standout choice from the Mountain West.
To note, these are just loose recommendations. The best whiskey for a classic Old Fashioned is really the one you like best.
What are the Best Bitters for a Classic Old Fashioned?
There are also countless brands of bitters on the market these days, with flavor profiles that will help tailor the drink to your personal tastes. Angostura is the standard, but other great options for a classic tasting drink include The Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas Bitters, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters or Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, Hella Cocktail Co.’s Aromatic Bitters and Copper & Kings Old Fashioned Bitters.
Is the Old Fashioned an Easy Bourbon Cocktail?
If you’ve ever wanted to live out your fancy mixologist dreams, the Classic Old Fashioned is an easy in. With only three ingredients, you can mix up this classic in about the time it takes to say the words “Classic Old Fashioned.” It is one of the best easy bourbon cocktails to learn, and to flex your skills like a pro. It is easy also in that it is drinkable all year round and anywhere, at a visit to a sultry speakasy in Chicago or lounging by the pool in an exotic, faraway land. The Classic Old Fashioned is, like the song says, “easy like Sunday morning.”
This story was updated on November 14, 2022.
Last Updated: June 1, 2023