Each year when the first cool autumn breeze signals the change of seasons, I know it's time to rearrange of my liquor cabinet. It's a simple process: gin and white rum are pushed to the back as the whiskey comes front and center.
When talking whiskey and cocktails, the conversation must begin (and end) with the Old-Fashioned. In addition to being arguably the greatest cocktail ever, it has some serious historical street cred. The first printed definition of a "cocktail," that we know of anyway, was in 1806 stating that a cocktail was a "stimulating beverage that is composed of spirits, sugar, water and bitters." Essentially, a recipe for an Old-Fashioned - today ice represents the water.
The historical details of the Old-Fashioned, like most of cocktail history, are as foggy as the memories of those responsible for creating it. But we can paint in broad strokes. Back in the early 19th century a cocktail was just one type of mixed drink, there were also sours, collins, juleps, etc. So when people made a drink containing whiskey, sugar, water (or ice) and bitters they simply called it a whiskey cocktail.
By the end of the 19th century the gilded age and cocktail culture were in full swing and the standard whiskey cocktail had been greatly elaborated upon. Within the dandy culture it had become fashionable to add a dash or two of imported liqueur such as absinth or curaçao, presumably as a boastful display of wealth. These were known as "fancy" or "improved" cocktails.
But many customers weren't as enamored with these "enhancements." Which led to some qualifying their order by asking for a no-frills-added "old-fashioned" whiskey cocktail. Thus, roughly, the Old-Fashioned was born.
Skip ahead another hundred years or so, throw in Prohibition and a generational game of cocktail telephone and today we have differing opinions on how the drink is properly made. The biggest debate centers around whether or not to include muddling an orange and cherry, additions that appeared in later recipes. Personally, I opt for no fruit. In my book, an Old-Fashioned should be strong, simple and whiskey forward. Not that I denounce the muddled version altogether. Entire generations, including my father's and grandfather's, prefer Old-Fashioned that way and if you do too, don't let me stop you. Though I do encourage you too try the classic version at least once.
Since the recipe for a traditional Old-Fashioned is beyond simple - just three ingredients plus ice - making a good one is pretty easy. But making one that sets itself apart can be a challenge. The key is to maximize each of the ingredients. Here are some tips on each one that will help guide you to making the best Old-Fashioned you've ever had:
Use rye whiskey instead of bourbon. Rye is sharper and less sweet, in addition to also being the traditional 19th century whiskey of choice. Look for something in the 90-100 proof range, more proof = more flavor. Among my personal favorites are Wild Turkey 101 Rye (not the 81), Rittenhouse Rye, Bulleit Rye, Russel's Reserve 6yr, and Whistle Pig Rye - which is a higher price point - but totally worth the extra coin.
Whether you make a simple syrup or are muddling a sugar cube I recommend using demerara or turbinado sugar, which are dark, less processed sugars. While white sugar works just fine, these have a richer flavor that blends beautifully with the rye. If you make a simple syrup out of them, make it two parts sugar to one part water, as opposed to the traditional one to one. Note: brown sugar does not work that well.
Bitters are an area you can really expand the flavor profile of your Old-Fashioned. In addition to Angostura bitters, which are an absolute must, I recommend a dash of orange bitters - particularly for those used to muddling an orange slice. They lend some brightness to the drink without adding any sweetness. Lately I've taken to throwing in a little of the Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters too, they add a subtle baking spice note. Make sure your dashes of bitters are good healthy dashes. Dash with confidence!
Since this drink is on the rocks but still a slow sipper the bigger ice you use the better. It has less surface area and will melt slower, keeping your drink cold without watering it down. Best case scenario is sipping one over one large cube. There are some great molds for big cubes available but if you don't want to go to the trouble, you can always make them in muffin tins at home.
For garnish I still avoid fruit. A twist is all you need. I like to use both lemon and orange peel.
After making countless Old-Fashioned, over the years, both for customers and myself. This one is my favorite:
My Perfect Old Fashioned
2 oz rye whiskey
1 demerara sugar cube or 1/2 teaspoon of 2:1 demerara syrup
2 dashes angostura bitters
1 dash Regan's orange bitters
1 small dash (a few drops) Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters
Lemon peel and orange peel for garnish
Whether to muddle a sugar cube or use simple syrup is a toss up for me. Syrup integrates better but I find the ritual of muddling the cube very romantic. It's your decision, there are no wrong answers. Here are methods for both.
If using a sugar cube:
In a frozen rocks glass (chill in the freezer) muddle the sugar and bitters until it becomes a paste, you can add a a teaspoon of water or seltzer to help it along.
Add the whiskey, fill glass with ice, the larger the cubes the better.
Stir for 20-25 seconds, a bit longer with larger cubes.
Garnish with a lemon and orange peel.
If using demerara syrup:
In a frozen mixing glass (again, chilled in the freezer), combine the rye, demerara syrup and bitters.
Fill with ice and stir for 20-25 seconds.
Strain into a frozen rocks glass, over fresh ice - preferably one large cube.
Garnish with a lemon and orange peel.
If you're looking to branch out, the Old-Fashioned template takes very well to adaptations. The best approach is to keep the proportions the same and swap out the whiskey for another spirit and pair it with a like-minded sweetener. Here are a few of my favorite combinations:
Apple Brandy and maple syrup
Reposado Tequila and agave nectar
Aged rum and cane syrup
Feel free to experiment with different bitters too, such as mole bitters with tequila and aromatic bitters with apple brandy.