Food

Anatomy of a Classic Cocktail: The Old Fashioned

One of the oldest and most enduring cocktails, the old fashioned is a study in the staying power of simplicity. Master the basic formula—a must in every bartender’s repertoire
TIMEDecember 10, 2021

So simple and elegant. Made with just four ingredients—whiskey, sugar, bitters, and a twist of orange—the old fashioned has survived for centuries while other mixes have come and gone.

We love our legends: The Pendennis Club, a gentlemen’s club founded in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky, claims to be the birthplace of the old fashioned, invented by a bartender in honor of bourbon-maker Colonel James E. Pepper, who, in turn, shared the recipe with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.

But author Robert Simonson calls the drink “primordial,” pointing out that most hard liquor cocktails had long used this formula. In the late 1800s, a growing popularity of liqueurs inspired more exploration, but at some point, drinkers complained they preferred the old-fashioned way. And so it was.

It’s a “built” drink, meaning the ingredients are poured right over ice—not shaken, only stirred—and that’s done typically directly in the serving glass.

Bourbon is made from a mash with 51 percent corn and tends to be a bit sweeter and rounder than a rye, which carries a bit more spiciness and edge. You could blend the two if you want to feel fancy and adventurous.

There’s no requirement to use a sugar cube rather than a spoonful, but cubes are easy—no spills, no measuring—and there’s just something oddly satisfying about watching the bitters soak in before you get to muddling. Syrups also work, but may vary in concentration. Sugar itself differs—think demerara: less-processed, light brown crystals with a bit of caramel flavor.

Tradition and Variation

While St. Louis celebrates the old fashioned as its official cocktail, Wisconsinites claim an old fashioned made with brandy (Korbel, typically) as their honored bar drink. Purists will politely (or impolitely) disagree.

On the matter of garnishes, an orange slice and a cherry—perhaps the exquisite Luxardo variety—are typical. And here’s where my home state’s common practice may legitimately offend the purists: The orange slice and cherries are muddled in the bottom of the glass with the sugar cube.

“Fruit salad!” cry critics. As Dave Arnold puts it in “Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail,” “While I’m all for doing what makes you happy, don’t put smashed fruit in the bottom of your drink and call it an old fashioned. Smash your fruit and name the drink something else!”

We did. Brandy old fashioned.

But start with the original and see how it suits you.

The Old Fashioned

Makes 1

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey

Saturate a sugar cube with bitters and a dash of water in an old fashioned glass. Muddle until dissolved. Fill glass with ice, add whiskey, and stir. Garnish with an orange slice and a cherry.

Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler, craft beer enthusiast, and home-cooking fan. He is the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and his new collection of short stories, “Stealing Away.” He’s based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com