As with most classic cocktails, there is some contention regarding the proper way to make an Old Fashioned Cocktail. I usually attribute this level of disagreement to the fact that the Old Fashioned and many other classics have their origins in the 1800’s… specifically, Mr. Boston’s bar book traces the Old Fashioned back to 1806. I find it fascinating that there is so much disagreement over how to make an Old fashioned considering that the first 4 pages of Mr. Boston’s is expressly devoted to telling exactly how to make the cocktail, and this book is a behind-the-bar staple, but regardless…
I would advise at this time that anybody truly interested in learning about classic cocktails procure a copy of Mr. Boston’s bar book. If that is not an option, if you click the “Look Inside” portion on the link above, navigate to “First Pages”, you will be able to read All of what he has to say about how to make an Old Fashioned Cocktail. While this is certainly advisable reading, I’m going to give you much of the same information along with some more explanation as to why people argue about things today, as well as some more colorful commentary.
STEP ONE: PICKING YOUR WHISKEY
Now, I have had the great displeasure of hearing the Old Fashioned referred to as “A great way to get rid of a whiskey you don’t like”. Considering this also came from the same person who suggested a splash of Coke on top, I don’t take their opinion too seriously, but it still bothers me for several reasons. First of all, if you have a whiskey you don’t like, there are always better ways to get rid of it. Cook with it, give it to a less sophisticated friend, put it in a jungle juice at a party, or perhaps make any variety of cocktails that are less whiskey forward. Here at Lucidi Distilling, our Old Fashioned is comprised of 2 oz Canadian Rye Whiskey, .75 oz Bar syrup, and dashes of bitters. The whiskey is literally 2/3 of the drink, so you should absolutely like the whiskey that you are using in it.
Personally, I prefer to use a sweeter whiskey, something with more caramel and vanilla notes. I consider the Old Fashioned to be a very easy going drink and I like to make it with an easy going whiskey. If you have a favorite rye and you like to spice it up a bit, then you are also right and should enjoy that drink immensely. Personally, I don’t like to use ‘smokey’ whiskeys at all in an Old Fashioned, but considering the amount of variations I’ve seen that use smoke in some form or another, that is also very much permitted. In this drink you should use the whiskey that you *really* want to drink. (Side note: Mr.Bostons describes it as Bourbon or Rye Whiskey, but life is much too short to limit your whiskey to what comes from America.)
STEP TWO: SWEETENER
The classic recipe calls for a sugar cube but, as Mr. Boston shows us, by 1862 bartenders were already using gum syrup (a variation of simple syrup). It has become increasingly popular in light of the craft cocktail boom to use sugar cubes again, particularly when making cocktails at home. The reason most bars use simple syrup is because it dissolves better and is more consistent, as well as simply being easier.
There are some arguments in favor of sugar cubes though and we should certainly address those: First being that faster does not equal better, and in most well respected bars across the U.S. customers are willing to wait for higher quality drinks. I am in complete agreement with this argument, though I’m not convinced that sugar cubes really are higher quality. They don’t dissolve as well and therefore don’t sweeten the drink as consistently. Anyone who says otherwise is welcome to examine the sugar sludge at the bottom of their next Old Fashioned. The final argument might be that it is the ‘classic’ way to make the drink. Well… maybe so, but does that make it the best way? Also, should we call it ‘classic’ according to the first 60 years of it’s life, or the remaining 150 which used bar syrups?
If you prefer sugar cubes, absolutely use those. Also, if that’s what you have at home, you don’t have bar syrup and you want to drink right now, definitely use those since it’s always such a pain to take time out of your busy drinking schedule to buy or create extra ingredients at the last minute. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
Once you have a firm hold on how you like your syrups, feel free to experiment with some other choices. With such a simple cocktail, changing one ingredient at a time is a great way to mix it up. Try a honey syrup or maybe a fruit syrup? Peach and blackberry go great with whiskey in my experience. I recently had an Old Fashioned sweetened with a root beer reduction syrup that was really quite good. As long as we all acknowledge that these drinks are homages to the original rather than substitutes, I don’t see why we can’t get a little weird with it.
STEP THREE: BITTERS
Bitters are an absolute must have. I don’t often lay down a line in the sand, but if you are having an Old Fashioned without the bitters, you just aren’t having an Old Fashioned. You’re having… something else. Angostura are the ‘classic’ Old Fashioned bitters, but don’t paint yourself into a corner. There are a lot of really exciting craft bitters brands out there just waiting for you to discover them. If you can, find a local craft bar and let them know your trying out different bitters. I’m sure they would be happy to make you a classic O.F. with different bitters every time, things like that are fun for people like us who love this job. If you are like me (kinda neurotic) and want to own everything, try getting a full set of bitters. The one linked has all the big brands you will get to know. This one is a smaller set, much better suited to home bartenders though they are all from the same brand. 4/5 of these are great in an O.F. cocktail, and I guess 5/5 if celery is just your jam.
Switching up bitters is also a great way to create variations on the classic Old Fashioned. Using Chocolate or Plum bitters with the right whiskey creates a completely different experience. Using Orange bitters in addition to your aromatic gives it a pleasant citrus zestiness that is hard to deny. If you really want to get weird, make your own bitters! Just remember to use safe ingredients and always pay attention to your sourcing. Always consult with experts before using an ingredient you don’t understand fully, it’s easy to get to dangerous levels of certain chemicals when using medicinal roots and herbs.
STEP FOUR: SHAKE, STIR, MUDDLE?
So there are a couple contentious points in this part, the most common being “Do you muddle the cherry and orange into the drink?” I have also seen people question whether or not to stir or shake this drink, and to answer that we need to look at why we stir drinks to begin with.
Muddling: For people who say ‘yay’ to muddling, it’s usually because they enjoy the added dimension of flavor that the fruit brings. Muddling releases the orange flavor and incorporates it better into the whiskey. If you are using a good cherry, it also brings out the rich black cherry/brandied flavors that are in them. For those who say ‘nay’, they argue that it cheapens the drink, and makes a fruity concoction of a traditionally rich, whiskey forward drink. Assuming you are using high quality fruit and excellent cherries, I can see both sides of this argument. My best friend, who is one of the most prolific whiskey drinkers I know, prefers her Old Fashioned muddled. I don’t. I will also say this much about muddling: it makes the drink ugly. All the little floaty bits clouding things up and generally looking messy… I hate that. If you prefer to muddle in an orange and a cherry, please please strain out the bits and put a fresh garnish on the drink. It just looks so much better.
Shaking v. Stirring: According to Dave Arnold in his book Liquid Intelligence, stirring and shaking dilute a drink in equal measure. If you are trying to achieve a certain temperature and dilution, shaking will get you there faster, but it will create ice chips and ‘fruit debris’ in this drink. If you like your Old Fashioned very cold, then go for it. If you are already muddling the drink, in my opinion, go ahead and shake it too and strain all the fruit pulp out.
I personally believe that stirring is the way to go however. Stirring is slower, most certainly, but the drink remains clear throughout. There is also a beauty in the evolution of the drink. When you first sip your less diluted Old Fashioned, it will be much more whiskey forward. As you continue to drink it however, it will begin to dilute and the drink will change in your hands. This element is part of the magic of classic cocktails like this and should be appreciated for its own sake.
For the record, the way we create our “Hoser, Eh?” (our version of the Old Fashioned cocktail) is as follows:
2oz. Fire Station No.1 Whiskey – Three year old Canadian Rye
.75 oz 1:1 Simple Syrup
4 dashes Angostura
Combine all in Old Fashioned Glass, drop in orange wedge, maraschino cherry, and express peel of lemon over top. Add ice, stir with straw and serve.
Personally, this is my favorite way to enjoy the drink. It’s simple, it’s fast, and it puts the whiskey front and center, where it deserves to be.
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