The Old Fashioned Cocktail: A New Journey

The Old Fashioned Cocktail: A New Journey

I’ve really been in a rut lately, drinking basically nothing but Aviations of late.

Pretty nice rut….

True, but a rut is a rut. I’ve been kicking around something new to try to work on and through a combination of circumstances which I’ll detail in future posts on this subject, I’ve found myself experimenting with perhaps the most appropriately named cocktail on (or off) the planet, the Old Fashioned.
Like all great cocktails, you can get into an argument about where it comes from. The traditional, fun tale is that the cocktail was created at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 19th century. This is demonstrably untrue.
In 1806, a New York newspaper answered a reader question about how to make this new thing called, a Cocktail. They replied with a concoction that is for all intents and purposes what we now call the Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned could just as easily be called The Original. But it wouldn’t sound as cool.
But I don’t want to diss the Pendennis Club. It does have an important place in the history of the Old Fashioned. By the late 1900s 1800s, the original Cocktail had likely fallen from favor, superseded by the winds and whims of fashion. One a fateful day, a member strode into the bar at the Pendennis. This man was likely a cranky, persnickity, but knowledgeable drinker, the kind who scoff at the pitiful ideas of lesser men about what makes a drink. In short, he was likely an ancestor of Gabriel Szaszko…. This guy sneers at all the drinks his fellow members are consuming (the Cosmos and Vodka Martinis of the time), leans upon the mahogany and demands of the bartender, serve me a damned Cocktail!
Of course, Mr. __________. What kind shall I get you?
I said I wanted a Cocktail. You know, whiskey, sugar, and bitters. An old fashioned Cocktail, like real men drank before we got all sissyfied in our drinks with shakers and fancy glasses! He likely went on to decry such trendy mixers as vermouth. And don’t get him started on crappy euro spirits like gin!
Another member, likely one who owed him money, decided to suck up and also ordered, one of Mr. _________’s Old Fashioned Cocktails, please. The name, as well as the drink, stuck. Over time, armed with a new, catchy label, the original Cocktail once again spread across the land as the Old Fashioned Cocktail.

So, if the Old Fashioned is the original Cocktail, Mr. History Buff, why isn’t it the Gospel of Whiskey, instead of the Manhattan?

Well, firstly because the Old Fashioned is actually a class of drinks. You can make it with a wide array of spirits, not just whiskey. We’ll examine that further in future posts. Also, while there may be an original recipe for the Old Fashioned, there really is no canonical best way to make one.
That said, let’s throw out a good version of that original formulation.


  • 2 oz. Maker’s Mark
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Place sugar cube in a Old Fashioned glass, and soak in the bitters. Add a splash of water and muddle to dissolve. Add a few cubes of ice and half the whiskey. Stir well, then fill to the top with ice and remaining whiskey. Garnish with two short straws.

There you have a base, historical Old Fashioned. And, like most cocktails I love, there you also have a host of arguments.
No real controversy on the whiskey. Use what you like, just use decent stuff. You may find, if you start really experimenting with different formulations of Old Fashioneds, that different whiskeys will work better with different versions. If you find yourself constructing elaborate charts and matrixes of your results with different brands, seek professional help immediately.
That sugar cube is a problem, though. Yes, it is the traditional way of doing the drink. Yes, it is a cool preparation. Yes, yes, yes. But no. It doesn’t dissolve easily, and seldom does it dissolve completely. You may end up with the dreaded sludge on the bottom of your drink, and that is not classic. I go with the modern idea of using simple syrup to taste. Somewhere between a teaspoon and a tablespoon should do the trick.
Next, there is the question of oranges. I’ll discuss a lot of things you can put in an Old Fashioned in later posts of this series, but orange deserves a spot in the first go. For many, if not most, modern Old Fashioned drinkers, it is as much a part of the drink as the whiskey. I agree. Without something to expand it, the cocktail I outline above is just too sharp for my tastes. Please note, the orange the drink needs is orange peel, not juice. After you have mixed the sugar, bitters, and the first batch of ice in your glass, cut a good sized slice of orange zest with a channel knife or vegetable peeler. Do this over the glass so you catch most of the oils that will spray out as you make the cut; these oils are what you are after. Give the peel a twist and drop it in the glass. Then stir in the remaining whiskey.
If you don’t have fresh oranges, you can replace the peel and its oils with a good orange bitters like Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6.This has the virtue of speed and convenience. You might also try Angostura Orange Bitters as well. I’d avoid trying to use the Fee Brothers orange bitters, at least in Old Fashioneds. The Fee’s is much milder and doesn’t really do the job here, at least for me. None of these bitters are as good as the fresh orange oils from a peel, however.
Finally, let’s talk garnish. You can make a perfectly good Old Fashioned with no garnish at all (should you employ the bitters option or the no orange option), and some traditionalists insist this is the way to do it.
The orange peel I suggest is an attractive garnish in and of itself, as well as a functional ingredient. You can even toss in a cherry with the stem on if you like.
The most common garnish for Old Fashioneds these days is a wedge of orange and cherry on a cocktail sword. While this little assembly is pretty by itself, I find it a bit fruity frou-frou for a classic, two century old drink. Sticking this massive garnish on your Old Fashioned is a bit like buying clothes for your grandmother at Forever XXI….

You forgot an ingredient!

No, I didn’t.

Yes, you did! What about….

No. I. Did. Not.


Don’t put club soda, seltzer, or any other unfrozen H2O in your Old Fashioneds, save perhaps for enough to dissolve your sugar cube, if that’s the way you roll.
True, lots of Old Fashioned recipes call for you to top up the glass with soda water. But you can tell that this is a B.S. ingredient from that telling phrase, top up. The simple fact is that a basic Old Fashioned recipe will likely not quite fill many Old Fashioned glasses. Bar patrons don’t like a glass that isn’t full, and bartenders don’t like to hear, Hey bartender, I’ll have another. And this time put some liquor in it. The simple solution is to hit it with the soda gun and everyone is happy, except someone who wants the best Old Fashioned.
Bartenders, add more ice and stir a bit if you must have the level approach the lip. Bubbles add nothing to the magnificent tranquility of this venerable drink. And if you are mixing your Old Fashioned at home, don’t worry about the level. You know how much booze you put in. Just stir and taste until enough ice has melted to give you the strength you want.
So there you have it, the basic Old Fashioned. Drink, enjoy, and come back to see what’s up as I examine some fun modifications, extensions, and variations in future posts!


  1. Brian

    4 June

    Thank you for this post! I am anxious to see what else you have to say about the Old Fashion in future posts!

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  2. Kudos on using the Maker’s Mark, Doug. I find that Maker’s isn’t always the best in whiskey cocktails, but damn if it doesn’t make the best Old Fashioned I’ve ever had…


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  3. sylvan

    9 June

    umm, “by the late 1900s”? I’m guessing you mean 1800’s, as the proper way to make an Old Fashioned had been debated for generations by the late 1900’s, when the drinks at the Pendennis would have been actual Cosmos and Vodka Martinis.

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  4. Doug

    9 June

    Yikes! Thanks for the edit. It’s been corrected.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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