Old Fashioned – A Way Too Detailed Analysis

The Old Fashioned. The grandfather of many drinks. A no nonsense, straight forward cocktail. Being the original Whiskey Cock-Tail and what I've been drinking a lot lately I think it's appropriate to be the first cocktail thoroughly analyzed by me.

But rather than explaining the origin and lore of this cocktail (you should read David Wondrich's Imbibe! or The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore, a book dedicated solely to the Old Fashioned and variations), I want to take a look at what impact different ingredients and recipes have on this oldest of cocktails.

As there are many different sources on how to mix an Old Fashioned it can be quite irritating to find a recipe that actually works for you. I know that the Old Fashioned has been discussed in a lot of articles all over the internet, but I'm missing a detailed analysis about how the ingredients work together and what happens when you change them.

That, and my quest for more knowledge, is why I will show you how to make a simple Old Fashioned and try to see how adjusting the ingredients impacts the final flavor. I will also provide a nice twist on the age old recipe.

Disclaimer: You Don't Need To Like It

When drinking you should obviously choose a cocktail you like or adjust the recipe in a way that it suits your taste. The Old Fashioned being a rather spirit forward drink mixed with rye or bourbon is obviously not for everyone. And I think this is fine. It is certainly no reason to mix it with lots of fruit and soda and still call it an Old Fashioned. We have passed that dark time in history. Just call it Old McFruity Punch if you want it that way.

What Exactly Is An Old Fashioned

Let's take a look at what Wikipedia says about the Old Fashioned:

The Old Fashioned is a cocktail made by muddling sugar with bitters then adding alcohol, such as whiskey or brandy, and a twist of citrus rind. It is traditionally served in a short, round, 8–12 US fl oz (240–350 ml) tumbler-like glass, which is called an Old Fashioned glass, named after the drink. - Wikipedia

Which I have to say is a quite accurate description which I wasn't expecting from Wikipedia. Of course most people would argue that whiskey is too broad and it really is just Rye or Bourbon. When mixing my Old Fashioned I like to follow Martin Doudoroff's advice on Old Fashioned 101. Especially the things not to do:

You do not mash up fruit of any kind in an Old Fashioned. To do so implies a perverted nastiness of mind. - Martin Doudoroff

There are however lots of mixologists who beg to differ. Charles Schumann suggests (in his book American Bar: The Artistry of Mixing Drinks) to muddle orange and lemon in the glass and add a cherry at the end. Which according to Simon Difford (and others) is an American invention during the prohibition. In Diffordsguide Cocktails #10 he also shows a preference for lots of stirring and lots of ice. And I'm sure that there are as many different recipes as there are bartenders.

Let's Do Science

Considering the different spirits available today there are millions of combinations you could try to make an Old Fashioned. So I decided to concentrate on the following differences: Sugar, Bitters, Spirit, Fruits and Ice. In each part I will only change one ingredient while the others remain constant and describe how this impacts the cocktail. Since my funds and time are limited I can only test so much different ingredients, so if you can come up with other variations I urge you to try them and see if they work.

Sugar

Such a simple ingredient and yet it has a huge impact. Too much and the Old Fashioned becomes a sweet mess. Not enough and the drink doesn't come together.

I will use the following recipe:

I will test the following sugar variations:

  • Sugar syrup made from raw cane sugar with a 2:1 sugar to water ratio. About 1/2 teaspoon or 2.5ml.
  • Sugar syrup made from normal white sugar, ratio 1:1. About 1 teaspoon or 5ml.
  • White sugar dissolved in a bit of water in the glass. One regular sugar cube (4g).

Different types of sugars used

Results

Sugar Cube
Using a sugar cube is hard work. You have to add a splash of water and the bitters and then start grinding until you have a smooth paste. It's important that there are no sugar crystals left over as they won't combine with the chilled alcohol once the drink is made. This means the preparation time is much longer than when using syrups. Something to keep in mind if you want to make a lot of cocktails.
Taste
A good balance between sweetness, the spicy rye and bitters. It's pretty much what I except when drinking an Old Fashioned. The rye plays the main part and the sugar manages to bring a balance to the drink.

Sugar Syrup 1:1 (Simple Syrup)
Easy to make, clear in color and the standard sugar syrup used in most cocktails this is probably the most convenient choice. Seeing as the sugar cube method just produces hand-made sugar syrup you will save a lot of work using simple syrup.
Taste
I couldn't taste a great difference in comparison to the sugar cube method. Slightly less sweet since there isn't as much sugar in 5ml of simple syrup as in a sugar cube. I have to say I prefer the sugar cube one, which means I should use a bit more simple syrup in the future.

Sugar Syrup 2:1
The first thing to keep in mind is that the dark color of the syrup will affect the color of the cocktail. In an Old Fashioned this isn't a problem, since the whiskey has a nice brown color too. Right from the start it gives the drink a visual richness.
Taste
The rye becomes too dominant and I'm missing a subtle sweetness. I think the amount of sugar is too low. Same problem as the simple syrup one. Just like with simple syrup I would increase the amount of syrup used. There are some really faint caramel notes and I can imagine, that this syrup can add an interesting touch. But as it stands I have to prefer the sugar cube version.

Bitters

The bitter used in an Old Fashioned is an essential ingredient. It ties the drink together. Without the bitters you would only have sweetened whiskey. Depending on what bitter is used the drink can take on a whole new direction. This time I chose a bourbon instead of a rye as my main spirit. Since bourbon is smoother I can taste the subtle differences in bitters better.

Obviously the bitters you will like in an Old Fashioned will strongly depend on your personal preferences, but let's see how some of the more popular brands compare.

I will use the following recipe:

  • Add 7.5ml simple syrup to a mixing glass
  • Add two dashes of bitters
  • Add 60ml Wild Turkey 101
  • Add ice and stir for 20 seconds
  • Strain into chilled Old Fashioned glass

I will test the following bitters:

Different types of bitters used

Results

Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Using Angostura gives a rather spicy cocktail. The clove and gentian come out strong in comparison to the smooth bourbon. My guess is that it would work better when using spicy rye or, if I were to keep the bourbon, just using a few drops less.

Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters
The cocktail gets some bold cinnamon and clove notes. It creates a warm cocktail which reminds me of winter. Definitely the bitters I'd use in the cold season as I find the result warm and comforting, almost Christmas-like. These bitters could use a stronger whiskey, either higher proof bourbon or a good rye.

The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Bitters
These bitters are subtle. Lot's of citrus notes and freshness. They don't dominate the bourbon but rather enhance it. The result is a well-rounded light cocktail. In my opinion the opposite of the Fee Brothers bitters, which is why I would recommend this in the summer. I have to say this is my favorite combination, but this might be due to the hot weather.

Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Boker's Bitters
Like the Jerry Thomas Bitters it's heavy on the citrus notes, combined with cardamom and hints of cloves the result is an interesting play on the palate. Somewhere between Angostura and The Bitter Truth this creates a light cocktail with subtle spiciness, which perfectly fits this bourbon.

Spirit

The main ingredient. Obviously this will have a strong impact on the finished drink. I recommend to choose whatever bourbon or rye you like. Of course you can use other spirits, but then you can't call it an Old Fashioned anymore (it becomes a Rum Old Fashioned when made with rum, etc.)

I will use the following recipe:

  • Add 7.5ml simple syrup to a mixing glass
  • Add two dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters
  • Add 60ml of American whiskey
  • Add ice and stir for 20 seconds
  • Strain into chilled Old Fashioned glass

I want to stick with bourbon and rye, but since I have a nice corn whiskey lying around I will give this a try too. The contestants are:

Bottles of whiskey

Results

Blanton's Straight from the Barrel
You get a strong cocktail due to the high alcohol content, but immediately there is that sweet caramel and honey flavor the bourbon brings along. Followed by an amazing note of oak this is my favorite Old Fashioned. Strong yet balanced it feels like a true gentleman's drink.

Wild Turkey 101
Smooth caramel and vanilla flavors combine with the spicy notes of Angostura and deliver a balanced Old Fashioned. Definitely a gentle cocktail without sharp edges and well rounded. As I previously mentioned the Angostura can be a bit strong. Overall maybe a bit weak and I think a higher alcohol content to retain more flavor when diluted with the ice would greatly enhance this mixture.

Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey
A gentle rye with vanilla and hints of cinnamon, combines with the Angostura to a balanced Old Fashioned. Compared to the Bulleit Rye (see below) this seems tame, but it works really well and I like the combination very much. If you like a less spicy Old Fashioned with Rye I recommend this one.

Bulleit Rye
Together with the Angostura you get a nice spicy, almost peppery drink. Notes of cloves and cinnamon and full of rye spice. If you like a rye that packs a punch an Old Fashioned with Bulleit Rye is right up your alley. It has lots of sharp edges and the spices play a major role in this concoction.

Platte Valley Straight Corn Whiskey
Now this is interesting. The drink is smooth, mild and tastes like great corn. Rather sweet, but not in a bad way. Totally different from any of the above. Even when tasting it neat I didn't get this much corn flavor. The taste reminds me of a granola bar I once had. The Angostura works well with this whiskey and the low alcohol content makes it easy on the palate. Also the color becomes a nice copper due to the light yellow from the whiskey combined with the dark Angostura.

Fruit

While I am perfectly fine drinking an Old Fashioned without any kind of fruity involvement, I know that a short citrusy twist can make the drink fresher and more accessible. For my Old Fashioned I will use Rittenhouse Rye and Angostura Bitters. Let's take a look at the combinations I deem worth trying:

  • Lemon Zest
  • Orange Zest
  • A Slice Of Lemon, lightly squeezed
  • A Slice Of Orange, lightly squeezed
  • A Homemade Marschino Cherry

Fruits used

Results

Lemon Zest
A clear taste of lemon makes the cocktail a bit more refreshing. But I find the taste misplaced as it doesn't really go well with the rye in my opinion.

Orange Zest
My clear favorite. The orange notes fit perfectly together with the rye without overpowering it. A great addition.

Slice Of Lemon
A horrible combination as the citrus juice doesn't really combine with the cocktail. It is the worst combination and should be avoided.

Slice Of Orange
Not as great as the orange zest, but still a nice combination. The bit of orange juice in the cocktail makes it a tad sweeter. The orange notes are more subtle however.

Marashino Cherry
I couldn't really taste a difference which makes sense since the small amount of fluid on the cherry gets drowned in rye. Eating the cherry was tasty though.

Ice

There are several ways to mix this drink. Shaking is not one of them. You want a clear drink and that means stirring at best. And while there are lots of types of ice which you can use to cool your Old Fashioned there are only a few good ways to use that ice:

  • Don't use ice at all, just stir in the Old Fashioned glass.
  • Stir with ice in the Old Fashioned glass.
  • Stir with ice in a mixing glass and strain into Old Fashioned glass without ice.
  • Stir with ice in a mixing glass and strain into Old Fashioned glass with ice.

I will use my up to now favorite recipe for this, which is a splash of simple syrup made from brown sugar, two dashes of Fee Brothers Old Fashion Bitters and 60ml Blanton's bourbon. Also I will use regular ice cubes. I could use clear ice and maybe make an ice sphere, but I want to focus on the type of ice that normal people have at home.

Ice, ice, baby!

Results

Neat
Without ice you get a nice, strong drink. Since the bourbon is quite high proof it is a bit too strong. Using a lower proof bourbon or rye might make this way of mixing an Old Fashioned a nice alternative to drinking whiskey neat.

Building In The Glass
Building the drink in the glass and then stirring it briefly makes a nice drink. It develops while you let it sit which means that you start out with something strong and heavy on the bourbon. After some time it becomes smooth and the flavors blend together perfectly. Until it gets a watery mess that is. If you don't drink fast enough you will have too much water in your Old Fashioned and it becomes rather dull. How fast this process happens depends on the ice used and the climate you live in.

Mixing Glass And Glass Without Ice
Stirring on ice and straining it into a chilled Old Fashioned glass without ice is probably the best way to achieve a proper dilution. You have lots of control over the amount of water in your drink and can take your time. The drawback here is that obviously your drink will get warmer, which means that holding the glass in your hand for too long will shorten the duration until you have a warm drink on your hands.

Mixing Glass And Glass With Ice
Stirring on ice and straining it into a chilled Old Fashioned glass with ice is quite risky. You have to use a big clear block of ice in your glass to minimize the dilution. The Old Fashioned is nicely diluted and chilled from being stirred in the mixing glass, so if your ice melts too fast you will end up with a watery mess.

With proper ice this is however the best way to enjoy this cocktail. The drink stays cold for a long amount of time and due to the initial mixing you have a perfectly combined drink. My advice would be to shorten the stirring time compared to the previous method. This way the Old Fashioned starts a bit stronger and slowly achieves perfection. Which means you have more time until it's watered down too much.

And Now The Twist

When visiting Japan this year I obviously had to visit Bar High Five (and I can only recommend that you do so too when in the general area). I ordered an Old Fashioned with a nice twist and got a great drink. Japanese whiskey with home-made green tea bitters in the style of an Old Fashioned.

Since I really like the taste of green tea and enjoy a bowl of matcha from time to time, I had to create something similar myself. For this I made some matcha syrup which is fast and easy to make. Thus the Mukashinagara (昔ながら), meaning old-fashioned in Japanese (at least this is what Google Translate assures me), was created.


Mukashinagara

Mukashinagara

Add the ingredients to a mixing glass and stir for 10 seconds on ice. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass with a giant ice cube or ice sphere.



The important thing is to be careful with the matcha syrup. Too much and the taste will overwhelm the whiskey, not enough and it's the other way around. Also since Japanese blended whiskey usually isn't as strong as rye or bourbon you have to be careful with the dilution.

I chose a Japanese whiskey since I wanted to go along with the whole Japan theme. There certainly are better whiskeys from Japan, but the Nikka All Malt should be easy to get and doesn't cost a fortune. The cocktail brings out the hints of smoke and the sweet notes of the whiskey go well together with the matcha.

Maybe other Japanese whiskeys will work better, but they are rather expensive. I am a bit reluctant to use my Yoichi 10 Year Old since it's such a great single malt. But rye or bourbon should work too, you just have to play around with the amount of matcha syrup to match the strength and taste.

The Final Verdict

The whole "experiment" took quite a long time and as I see now has reduced quite some of my bourbon and rye reserve. It was worth it though. I learned new things about the Old Fashioned and the different combinations. I have made over 20 Old Fashioneds (including the Mukashinagara) to write this. This equals more than 1.2l or 40 oz of whiskey! That surprises even me as I write this.

What have I learned? Use enough sugar or otherwise it's just whiskey with bitters. I will always use the 2:1 sugar syrup to get more caramel notes. Also I learned that the bitters play a huge role in this drink and I will use them accordingly. The alcohol used is mainly personal taste, but I found out that you should try new things like corn whiskey. And of course I now add an orange peel to my drink, since this is a great experience.

In short:

  • It was fun.
  • Best Sugar: Rich Simple Syrup
  • Best Bitters: The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Bitters
  • Best Whiskey: Blanton's
  • Best Fruit: Orange Zests
  • Best Ice: Stirred And Served With Ice Sphere

Empty Old Fashioned