The Traditional Old Fashioned Cocktail

The Manliest Cocktail

How to make an old fashioned cocktail

Let’s talk about one of the great sources of contention in the world of spirits: the Old Fashioned. For more than a century it’s inspired ridicule, debate, judgment, and inebriation. How you make your Old Fashioned says more about you than most people would imagine; it separates the men from the boys and distinguishes those who know their whiskey and how to drink it.

There are now more variations to an Old Fashioned than one can keep straight, and often these have resulted in a fruity drink that betrays the quality whiskey you’ve used. Should you use a splash of soda or the juice from the cherry jar? A cube of sugar or simple syrup? How does one choose between tradition and innovation, and how can one decide which practices are best when taste is subjective?

Throughout the early 1800’s the basic structure of the Old Fashioned began to rise to popularity, particularly in New York. Water, bitters, sugar, and a garnish were commonly being added to either whiskey, gin, or brandy.  By the middle of the 19th century this concoction included absinthe, other liqueurs, and citrus creating a number of variations of the same basic cocktail. Rye and Bourbon were the most popular spirits used for these cocktails, and in the 1880’s there was a resurgence in popularity of the ‘old-fashioned’ recipe for the cocktail. It was around this time that there are first references to the name Old Fashioned for the cocktail.

The oldest published recipe for the Old Fashioned cocktail is in the 1885 book Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks by George Kappeler. The book describes the recipe as:

Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

●      Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass;
●      add two dashes Angostura bitters,
●      a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel,
●      one jigger (2oz.) whiskey.
●      Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.
How to Make An Old Fashioned Cocktail [Infographic]

Nowadays, the best Old Fashioned you will find will closely resemble this recipe. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that fruit snuck it’s way into the drink, and by the 1990’s your average bar was adding chunks of orange and lots of cherries. Sure, the fruity Old Fashioned still tastes fine if you’re comfortable ruining a perfectly good whiskey.

Before making or ordering yourself an Old Fashioned, you have one critical decision to make.

What whiskey will you be using?

While bourbon is now the whiskey of choice for most, rye is a close second and was the favorite at the origin of the drink. Bourbon is, by law, distilled from a minimum of 51% corn and aged in new white American oak barrels. Many folks who think they know whiskey will spew the lie that it must be from Kentucky to be labeled ‘bourbon’. This is false: Kentucky is where most distilleries are, but it can be from anywhere so long as it meets the requirements of the recipe. Rye must be distilled from a minimum of 51% rye. If you’re choosing a rye whiskey, be aware that many Canadian whiskeys are labeled rye but contain no actual rye. It seems that Canada needs to step up its label game.

Typically bourbon is seen as a softer, slightly sweeter whiskey with more caramel and vanilla notes, whereas rye tends to have more bite and spice. Traditionally a bourbon Old Fashioned will be garnished with an orange rind, while a rye variation gets a lemon rind.

A modern Old Fashioned recipe is quite simple but has many steps that see a great deal of variation depending on the bartender:


  • 2 oz. quality bourbon or rye whiskey
  • Sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Splash of club soda or water
  • Lemon or orange rind garnish
  • Ice
  • No cherries or fruit wedges


  • Old Fashioned, lowball, or rocks glass
  • Jigger
  • Peeler or knife
  • Lighter (optional)

It’s important to begin with a clean, polished Old Fashioned glass, however if you don’t have a true Old Fashioned glass then any short, squat liquid holding container will do. Place the sugar cube in the glass and add the bitters onto the sugar. Do not use simple syrup; you are adding more water than you need. Add a splash of club soda or water to soften the sugar, then muddle it until it is dissolved. Place a large ice cube or ball into the glass and pour the whiskey over the ice. Give the mixture a brief spin to mix thoroughly. To garnish, slice a 1 in. by 2 in, piece of lemon or orange rind. Do not add more fruit. If you’re feeling particularly fancy, rub the rind around the rim of the glass and pinch it to release the fragrant oils. The spritz of citrus oils can be lit over the glass for a small burst of flame and a bit of showmanship.

Moby Dick Restaurant
220 Stearn's Wharf
Santa Barbara, CA 93109