The Old Fashioned is one of THE staple cocktails. And in some respects, it’s one of the oldest too, hence its namesake. As expected, the construction as such is one of simplicity. However, do not mistake simplicity for easy because the sweet spot of flavour is in the finesse of how you make it. An Old Fashioned made with love will taste different to one made without. And that’s not romanticising the drink at all, although every drink deserves a little romance.
The History of the Old Fashioned...and the Cocktail!
Surprise! When Old Fashioneds were first made, they weren’t called Old Fashioneds. One of the early records of the drink can be found in an issue of The Balance and Columbian Repository from May 1806. This was also one of the first uses of the word ‘cocktail’, referring to a strong drink made of spirit, sugar, water and bitters. Rye or bourbon was used, and back then it was simply called a ’Whisky Cocktail’ and considered ‘matutinal’, something drunk in the morning as an eye opener.
Fast forward to the mid-1800s and cocktails began to grow more complex. It was common to use other ingredients such as liqueurs. Although these were the early foundations of the wonderful world of cocktails we know today, some people didn’t want a complicated drink, so they would ask for a cocktail that was made ‘the old fashioned way’ and that name soon took.
Fruit vs. No Fruit?
The drink did go through another adaptation during the prohibition era. Fruit was commonly muddled into the drink and it’s thought that this was to disguise the bad quality of the spirits being used during that period. This was a common practice in the US, however fans of the Old Fashioned most often prefer them without, seeing the fruit as sullying the character of the spirit, and the addition of fruit has never taken off here in the UK.
It is really only in the last twenty years after researching old cocktail recipe books that the Old Fashioned has once again returned to its earlier roots in style. Much like any cocktail, we see different variants of spirit. There are recipes with anything from brandy to gin, absinthe, and—in recent years—mezcal. This versatility does make sense. When you think of what this drink embodies, those few additional ingredients are purely to dress the spirit but still leave it as the star of the show.
How to Make an Old Fashioned
So, how simple is it to make an Old Fashioned? Relatively so, though as previously mentioned, the secret ingredient here is love. When you’re making a cocktail that has few ingredients, the difference in taste comes from the quality of those ingredients and how honed the method is. Yes, what’s in the glass is a simple four things whisky (commonly), sugar, bitters and water. With no other ingredients to mask the flavour of the spirit, precision is key to making the most of it.
The preferred way to make an Old Fashioned is to place one sugar cube (I prefer brown, you can use white, some people use sugar syrup) in an Old Fashioned (rocks) glass. Drip on two or so dashes of bitters so it starts to soften and muddle. Add a good measure (around 50ml) of whisky and stir gently until the sugar starts to dissolve. Then, add ice. One large cube is perfect due to a slower melt and dilution, otherwise use 3-4 cubes of standard ice.
Causing a Stir
This is where the real love comes, through. You gently stir so the ice begins to melt, diluting the whisky. How long you do this for is the real art. As you can imagine, with each stir a little more water dilutes the whisky, lengthening the flavours of that, the sugar and the bitters. The trick is to find the point where it’s just right and, let’s be honest, that is a matter of taste. Once you’ve reached that perfect point add orange garnish and enjoy!
Whilst a bar presents their Old Fashioned and their concept of the perfect dilution point, at home you can make these simply and, with a little practice, work out what point is right for you. This method of slow mixing ‘stirring down’ is relatively new. It used to be the case that it would be given a quick stir and served, the drink diluting as the ice melted, and this is still a perfectly acceptable way to make them. However, for me, that extra attention makes all the difference and your drink is perfect from the first sip.
The Bitter End
Additionally, there are some very special products out there like Vintage Orange bitters from Dashfire made with orange rind, quality bourbon then aged in oak barrels. However, it’s also worth noting that in theory, you could add any bitters to the drink to give it a twist.
Variations on a Classic Old Fashioned
When we start to think about different spirits and accompanying flavours, there is suddenly a world of Old Fashioneds to discover. How about using gin, white sugar and lime bitters? Or rum, brown sugar and Chai’ Walla bitters from Dashfire? This really is cocktail 101 in the sense of being able to play around with flavours and learning how they work together. Hours could be lost at home and to be honest, we say that’s time well spent indeed.
If this idea excites you, then it would be worth checking out our ‘Your Old Fashioned Box’. With this you can choose your whisky, your bitters and an extra snack or brandied cherries and lapel pin, gaining a nice discount at the checkout.
There’s also an option to add a gift message, making this a great present for the whisky lover in your life. So, even if you’re more into drinking than making, by treating them you still reap the benefits. Hey, that way everyone’s a winner!