Old Fashioned. It’s one of those words that’s faintly insulting. Unless, of course, you’re talking about cocktails.
Then you’re talking about a drink that just wouldn’t die. A drink that has transcended its stodgy origins and come to define the word classic. Once, a very long time ago people would drink spirits with some sugar, bitters and water. In historical cocktail books this was recommended as a morning tonic. A little medicinal pick-me-up. It was also, apparently, enjoyed by hunting and fishing parties.
Now, in the entire history of bartending, there have been few bartenders content with leaving original cocktails as it. Before long recipes for ‘fancy cocktails’ started showing up. By today’s standards, these recipes didn’t stray too far from their origins, but at the time, they were certainly new.
They added a little orange curacao, used syrup instead of sugar and added a little lemon. Ice was likely a novel addition as well. But, at their core they were spirit, bitters, sugar and water.
For curmudgeons of the day, however, this was unacceptable.
They started demanding their cocktail the ‘Old Fashioned’ way. Which sounds like the end of the story, but it's not. By this point, people started enjoying things like ice. Also, that lemon zest does lift things up nicely. So, even then, the ‘old fashioned’ way was already a little different than the old fashioned way.
This is where the story really starts. Because, this is a drink that has adapted and changed with every trend in drinking. Except for disco and vodka, but that is another story.
In recent years, when bartenders with waxed moustaches and arm garters decided to ‘revive’ this drink they still put their own unique touches on it. What that means is this: it's a great drink for you to mess with! Once you learn the formula, it’s pretty easy to make your own version of it.
The Old Fashioned Deconstructed
The Old Fashioned formula is pretty simple. It has three ingredients, if you don’t count ice. Spirit, bitters and sugar. It could be any spirit, but over time people settled on Bourbon as the most common base. There is a good reason for that.
Bourbon works well in an Old Fashioned. It has vanilla and caramel notes that are intensified by the addition of sugar. Bourbon also has woody and spice flavours. Bitters accentuate cinnamon and other baking spice aromas that are already present in Bourbon.
So this combination of sugar and bitters works a little like plastic surgery. It lifts and separates flavour. At the same time sugar and water makes strong spirits much more approachable.
Bourbon works well but most people are comfortable picking a different whiskey. There is a good case to be made that whiskies with a high rye content are even tastier in an Old Fashioned. More adventurous types will comfortably swap the whiskey for other aged spirits like rum, tequila or brandy.
The fun doesn’t have to stop there though. The cool thing about the Old Fashioned is that you can old fashion any spirit. The trick is just thinking a little bit about pairing the spirit with the bitters and sugar.
Let’s start with bitters. Bitters are the spice rack of the bar. Almost literally. Bitters are spices, roots and botanicals in liquid form. They often have fruit, chocolate or other flavours to give them a bit of direction. But they always have a base of bitter roots, bark or botanicals. When you are working with whiskey the classic baking spice flavours of Angostura pairs really well.
If you are thinking about lighter spirits like gin, however, you might want to think about using something like citrus or floral bitters. You can also take some inspiration from other cocktails.
For example, you know tequila and grapefruit pair well because a Paloma is delicious. So, you might want to try grapefruit bitters in an Old Fashioned made with tequila. Wait, tequila is made from agave, so maybe could we use agave syrup instead of sugar? The answer is yes, of course.
In the classic formula the sugar will often take the form of brown sugar. This is often muddled in the glass with the bitters. It, usually, never quite dissolves, giving the drink a nice rustic grittiness. It could be anything sweet, however. Maple syrup, agave or fruit syrups all work well.
You can also make your own spice or other flavoured syrups. Again, thinking about the flavours in your spirit and pairing those flavours goes a long way. The sugar element plays an important role in this cocktail.
Sugar balances bitter flavour. It also buffers the heat of the alcohol and helps make high proof spirits more palatable. Most important, perhaps, is that it works really well to enhance flavour. In other words, it just makes everything taste better.
The Golden Ratio
When you’re putting it all together you’ll want to use 2 ounces of spirit, 2 dashes of bitters and vary the sugar a little depending on how sweet it is. If you’re using crystal sugar use ½ tsp. With a simple syrup use 1 tsp. Some syrups, like maple syrup, are sweeter so adjust downwards. If it's not sweet enough you can always add more.
This is a spirit forward cocktail, which means you want to stir and strain. That will give you just the right amount of chilling and dilution without aerating your spirit too much. Finally, throw a garnish on it. Make it interesting, make it beautiful. Get out there and explore. Most importantly, make it your own!
4 New Recipes Using the Old Fashioned Formula
1. Rooted in Canada
- 2 ounces Stillhead B-Word Canadian Whisky
- 2 dashes Rootside Root Beer Bitters
- ¼ oz high quality maple syrup
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange twist. This is a fairly classic whiskey Old Fashioned. With a distinctly Canadian twist. Stillhead’s B-Word is made in a way that is very similar to bourbon, but it is at its heart a Canadian whisky. Maple syrup is a fantastic pairing with whisky and the root beer bitters work well with the spicy notes in this particular whiskey. If you really want to add some unique character, smoke your glass with some cherry wood chips, or garnish with a cinnamon sugar rim!
2. Proud & Sweet Pomelo
- 2 ounces of Hornitos Reposado
- 2 dashes of grapefruit bitters (check out How Sweet Eats DIY recipe!)
- ¼ oz agave syrup
- Garnish a grapefruit wedge with rock salt
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange twist. This Old Fashioned is inspired by the Paloma and marries grapefruit and agave flavours. For a little more interest and texture, you can add a cinnamon sugar rim.
3. Island Lemon Old Fashioned
- 1 ½ ounces Sheringham Lemon Liquer
- ½ tsp simple syrup
- 2 dashes yuzu or orange bitters
- Lemon peel on a cocktail stick
Add all of the ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with a large lemon wedge on a cocktail stick. This version is going to be less spirit forward, but offers a variety of opportunities to switch it up and add more of your favourite Sheringham Vodka.
4. The Very Old Fashioned
- 1 ½ ounces Bombay Sapphire Gin
- ½ tsp Triple Sec
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- Orange twist to finish
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange twist. Beyond simply switching out one spirit for another we can also combine different combinations of spirit. In this case we are adding a little triple sec. If you really want to take things to another level try rinsing your glass with a little Absinthe or Pastis.