The Old Fashioned is one of the earliest whiskey cocktails in modern record, thought to be developed in the early 1800s. Though countless modern variations have popped up in the centuries since, the classic Old Fashioned is understood as a simple combination of whiskey (usually bourbon or rye), sugar and bitters.
It’s hard to nail down exact historical proportions, as the strength and quality of distilled spirits, or even which spirits were used, have varied over time. In Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide (later titled How to Mix Drinks: Or, the Bon-Vivant’s Companion), the first cocktail book published in the United States in 1862, liquid volumes are often measured in “wineglasses,” which has been taken to mean around two ounces of spirit. Early iterations of what would become this whiskey-based drink instead used Holland gin, and many modern purists claim bourbon is the only option, despite rye having been an early favorite.
Regardless of complicated backstories and historical bartender peacocking, the Old Fashioned itself remains one of the easiest to make, three-ingredient drinks in the modern cocktail canon.
The Best Whiskey or Bourbon for a Classic Old Fashioned
The answer to which is the best whiskey or bourbon for an Old Fashioned is generally whatever you prefer. Bourbon is a better choice for a sweeter drink, while rye may be preferable for those looking for drier, spicier or peppery notes. Just avoid any brands that have added sugar, like many flavored whiskeys, as it will change the balance of your drink.
If you’re looking for an affordable, widely available bourbon that makes a great classic Old Fashioned, Elijah Craig Small Batch is hard to beat, and Jefferson’s Very Small Batch Bourbon is a fantastic entry-level bottle from the producer. If you’re looking for options in the $50 range that provide depth, the bold and dry profiles of Angel’s Envy Bourbon or Uncle Nearest 1856 take to the addition of sugar and bitters, while Bib & Tucker 6 Year works well for those who like a touch of natural sweetness in their whiskey.
For a rye Old Fashioned, High West Double Rye can usually be found for less than $30, and you really won’t fail with classics like Old Overholt as an affordable under $20 choice. Rittenhouse is a rye standard for cocktails in bars everywhere, but, bottled-in-bond at 100 proof, could benefit from a splash of water if you don’t want too strong a drink. At a higher price point, Van Brunt Stillhouse’s Empire Rye has unique East Coast characteristics that work well in an Old Fashioned, and Colorado’s Golden Moon Gun Fighter Rye is a standout choice from the Mountain West.
To note, these are just loose recommendations. The best whiskey for a classic Old Fashioned is really the one you like best.
The Best Bitters for a Classic Old Fashioned
There are also countless brands of bitters on the market these days, with flavor profiles that will help tailor the drink to your personal tastes. Angostura is the standard, but other great options for a classic-tasting drink include The Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas Bitters, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters or Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters, Hella Cocktail Co.’s Aromatic Bitters, and Copper & Kings Old Fashioned Bitters.
Recipe for a Classic Old Fashioned
Put sugar cube in rocks glass. Add bitters and 1 teaspoon water, adding extra bitters dashes to taste. Use muddler to break up sugar cube and muddle until dissolved into a paste. Add whiskey and stir for 5 seconds. Fill glass with ice and stir for additional 10–15 seconds to chill.
Hold lemon or orange peel over glass and twist to express oils. Drop peel into glass and serve.
An Alternative Easy Old Fashioned Preparation
If you don’t want to go through the fuss of muddling a sugar cube, you can generally substitute the cube with ½ ounce of simple syrup. In blind taste tests, we’ve found few drinkers can tell the difference.