Know Your Classic Cocktails: The Old Fashioned

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After spending most of my time indoors this past week due to sub-freezing conditions and the birth of my first child on Friday the 13th, I've found myself enjoying a fair few glasses of my favorite cocktail, the Old Fashioned.

Not only does this drink make you feel like a proper man, but it encourages creativity and dulls the ear-piercing, inexplicable cries of a fussy newborn.

Classic cocktails have gained popularity in recent years. And like everything that increases in popularity, bastardization is never far behind. Now, I don't like to think of myself as a strict purist in any area of interest, but I do have a healthy respect for the old ways.

Here I'll present the way I make this time-honored drink in a correct-ish manner (you can't always please everyone). Put on your slippers, button your cardigan, and make sure no one's in your comfy chair – it's cocktail time!


In modern society, “cocktail” is used loosely as a catch-all term for any alcoholic concoction.

The historic definition, however, is specifically a mixture of spirits, bitters, sugar, and water.

The name “old fashioned” is said to come from bar patrons ordering a cocktail “the old fashioned way.”

Cocktails, in general, are reported to have emerged for two major reasons.

The first reason being a “hair of the dog” cure. Our forefathers weren't sissies about their libations and used to actually enjoy their spirits neat (straight up).

The morning after a hard night at the pub, they wanted something a little sweeter to nurse their hangovers. Hence, the addition of bitters, sugar, and water.

The second reason to add sweetener and seasoning to spirits was born out of the necessity to mask the poor quality of prohibition era booze.

Old Hank's distillation practices were questionable at best and it would take a few extra ingredients to remove the impression you were enjoying spirits brewed in the same tub Hank used to wash his sock laundry.

Old Fashioned Ingredients/Tools

  • Bourbon
  • 1-2 teaspoons sugar and equal parts water (only enough to dissolve the sugar)


  • Simple syrup (a 50/50 mixture of sugar and water – I store mine in this vial)
  • Bitters (Angostura is the obvious choice)
  • Citrus zest (optional)
  • Old fashioned glass (also known as a tumbler or rocks glass)
  • Stirring tool (spoon or straw)


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(1) Add sugar and water to your glass and mix until dissolved OR use 1-2 teaspoons of simple syrup.

(2) Cut a slice of orange zest, twist to mist oils into the glass, and rub the zest around the rim. Add the zest to the glass or discard.

(3) Add one or two dashes of bitters.

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(4) Add an ice cube or two, if desired.

(5) Pour in the good stuff – about 2 ounces of bourbon should do the trick.

(6) Stir, sample the aroma, and enjoy!


I'm a firm believer in mastering the basics. Rolling through stop signs is only acceptable once you've learned to operate a car with a sufficient level of control. Until then, it's best to come to a complete stop.

So once you've mastered the foundation of the old fashioned, feel free to experiment a little. Just know that it's no longer the intended cocktail when you start making alterations.

My suggested variations:

Use rye whiskey instead of bourbon.

Try lemon zest instead of orange, or none at all. Lemon goes great with rye.

Bitters come in all flavors like orange, grapefruit, and rhubarb.

Substitute either brown sugar, agave nectar, or other flavored syrups for white sugar to add a little variety.

If the drink is too strong, you can stir to dilute or add a little water or club soda.

A popular addition is muddled fruit, usually an orange wedge and maraschino cherry.

General Tips

Spending about $30 on a well-known bourbon or rye is a fairly foolproof way to get a bottle that doesn't disappoint.

Angostura bitters are the most widely used and the best place to start.

If you're used to drinking lite beer or some fruit juice-soaked drink from your local sports bar, an old fashioned will knock your socks off. Be aware that it may take a little time to develop a taste for them. They're well worth the adjustment period though.



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  • Reply
    Damian @ Dareandconquer
    February 25, 2015 at 11:41 am

    Hey nate,
    nice article

    are you a barman or you just like the particular cocktail and you decided to learn how to do it at home?

    have you tried using peychauds bitter instead of angostura?


    • Reply
      February 25, 2015 at 3:56 pm

      I’m not a barman, just interested in making the classic cocktails at home. I haven’t tried Peychauds but I’ll look for it the next time I’m out. Thanks for the tip.

  • Reply
    February 25, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Nice, seems like WAY to many cocktails are super fruity now-a-days, this is a good recipe for the real mans cocktail. And congratulations on the kid!

    • Reply
      February 25, 2015 at 11:16 pm

      Thanks! And you’re right, most cocktails these days are mixed for people who don’t like to taste any alcohol. I like drinks that enhance the flavor of spirits, not just mask it in a pint of sugary syrup.

  • Reply
    April 25, 2015 at 10:03 pm

    What a timely article. Just went to a wedding this past weekend. Beforehand, was chilling in the hotel with some friends and one of them asked if I wanted an Old Fashioned. I wasn’t planning on drinking, but if a guy offers an old fashioned, you damn well better accept! It was delicious.

    You can’t go wrong with Bulleit Bourbon or Rye, an excellent choice.

    • Reply
      April 26, 2015 at 1:30 am

      Special occasions are always a little more special with a proper cocktail in hand. I need to grab a bottle of Bulleit Rye. I’ve tried it at a bar, but haven’t had a bottle to myself yet.

  • Reply
    Stephan Raczak
    May 28, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    I have been bartending at a top-notch cocktail bar here in Copenhagen for a year. I definitely love the classic Old Fashioned with Bulleit.

    I have recently switched to using rum instead – more specifically:
    Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 Year Old Rum — beauuutttyyy!!!

    Also, when I prepare my bourbon-based Old Fashioned, I like to crush an Italian Maraschino cherry on the bottom of the low ball glass – gives the drink nice flavour and slightly more reddish colour –> I will strain the cherry bits after stirring the drink.

    Garnish with a little cherry syrup. BLISS :)

    • Reply
      May 28, 2015 at 5:16 pm

      Awesome variations, Stephan! I’ve never thought to use rum, I’ll have to give that a shot.

    • Reply
      Dalton Finney - Naked Charisma
      September 15, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      Hell yeah! I’m all about the Ron Zacapa.

      I’m not sure if it’s got wide distribution yet but check out Parce Rum – a Colombian rum aged in bourbon barrels. It works equally well in easy drinkin’ rum/tiki cocktails as well as it does as a worthy substitute for bourbon in your strong, stirred cocktails. It makes for a *MEAN ASS* Manhattan, if I can say so myself.

  • Reply
    July 29, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    Hey Nate,

    I’m from Wisconsin, and the only way we make Old Fashioneds up here is using Korbel Brandy. We definitely always muddle a cherry, and some people add a bit of sour or even olive juice. My favorite drink. You can also buy a pre-made mix which is obviously not nearly as good, but it definitely gets the job done a little faster!

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  • Reply
    January 22, 2016 at 12:24 am

    First time I ever had an Old Fashioned was last year while taking a Country Line Dance lesson. Why is a Metalhead taking a Country Line Dance lesson? Well, why not?

    Damn fine drink. And although we don’t get the extreme temps in our neck of the woods, still a good drink for this time of the year. Kudos on both the article and the pics. Bulleit is good. I just happen to prefer Buffalo Trace.

    Thanks Nate.

    • Reply
      January 22, 2016 at 5:18 am

      I really enjoy an old fashioned and it seems to be increasing in popularity exponentially. I couldn’t even find a bartender who knew how to make on five years ago, now it my go-to. Buffalo Trace is very good. Cheers!

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