All whiskey lovers should learn to make the best old-fashioned cocktail recipe at home. This classic bourbon drink is one any home bartender should know.
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I will never forget the first time I tried an old-fashioned cocktail.
A long time ago, my friend asked me to photograph her wedding in Wisconsin, and she sweetly invited me to join the rehearsal dinner fun.
Her friends told me the “most Wisconsin cocktail” I could order was an old-fashioned, and that’s where my rocky love affair with this classic cocktail started.
Rocky? Yes, you’ll see.
Later, when I went to bartending school, I learned how to make the old-fashioned for myself.
Our teacher taught seven steps for making an old-fashioned, most of which I now fully disagree with!
Here are the seven steps I was taught:
- Muddle an orange slice and a maraschino cherry in a large rocks glass .
- Add a bar spoon each of sugar and bitters.
- Fill with ice.
- Add 1 1/2 ounce of whiskey.
- Dump it into a cocktail shaker, shake, dump it back in the glass.
- Top the cocktail with club soda.
- Garnish with a “flag” — a toothpick with an orange wedge and a cherry — and serve on a bar napkin.
Don’t get me wrong: The bones are there in this version. You will still see this version served in airport bars and restaurants that — let’s be honest — don’t have a great cocktail program.
And yeah, it’s drinkable. But it is definitely NOT the best old-fashioned cocktail recipe.
Following those steps will have you falling out of love with this classic cocktail in no time.
The best old-fashioned cocktail recipe
Over the years, I have followed that bartending school recipe less and less and less.
The old-fashioned is an easy recipe to customize to your own liking. My husband makes them for himself at least once a week and has perfected his own recipe.
Here’s how I make my best old-fashioned cocktail recipe:
These are short glasses, ideally with a heavy bottom. You don’t have to have anything fancy!
Start with a cocktail cherry. Add a little spoonful of juice if you like more cherry flavor in your old-fashioneds.
The best cherries for an old-fashioned cocktail are homemade cocktail cherries, in my opinion, but you can certainly buy them and have wonderful results. (I do, often!)
My only request? Please skip the bright, neon red maraschino ones! They are artificially colored and flavored, and mostly just taste like sugar.
My Cheerwine old-fashioned uses a homemade syrup made from reducing cherry soda, which is another way you can bring in cherry flavor.
You can also introduce a new fruit or herbs if you want to change the flavor of your old-fashioned. I used peaches in this peach old-fashioned recipe, but blackberries, strawberries or even herbs would make a nice twist.
Next, add some simple syrup. Simple syrup is something you can make ahead and keep in your fridge to make all your cocktail mixing easier.
You can also use a teaspoon of sugar, but it’s more difficult to get sugar to dissolve, which is why I recommend syrup since it’s already a liquid.
If you don’t have simple syrup on hand, my husband likes to use maple syrup in his cocktails sometimes! Don’t miss his recipe for his favorite maple old-fashioned I shared here.
And if you’d rather not sweeten yours, that’s totally fine! Bourbon is pretty sweet on its own.
Muddle the cherry into the syrup, but don’t smash it into smithereens.
Just a few presses will do, to help break up the cherry and get some juice out.
I prefer a wooden muddler with teeth, which help to smush the fruit better, but you can use a metal spoon, the end of a wooden spoon or even a fork.
Large ice cubes have less surface area than multiple smaller cubes, which means a larger cube will melt more slowly, which slows down the dilution of the bourbon.
Can you use small cubes? Absolutely. Just know that your cocktail will become watered down more quickly, so you may wish to use less or drink faster. (Just be responsible!)
Want a hot tip? Hot water is the secret to clear ice!
Ice is also a great spot to infuse new flavors as I did with chai tea ice cubes in this chai old-fashioned cocktail recipe.
Then add your bourbon. About 1 1/2 to 2 ounces is ideal, but this is YOUR cocktail. *wink*
The best whiskey for an old-fashioned cocktail
Known for its lovely, sweet, oaky flavors, bourbon is the most popular choice for an old-fashioned.
There are tons of brands of bourbon out there. Check out my Bourbon 101 guide for more about bourbon and what brands are popular.
My favorite brands change often, but I love making old-fashioneds with Bulleit, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Old Forrester, Angel’s Envy and Knob Creek.
Each brand has a unique mash recipe and aging technique, giving each bourbon a unique taste. It’s never too late to try something new!
My advice is to buy the best brand(s) you can afford in your quest to find the best bourbon for an old-fashioned cocktail.
It’s also common to use rye whiskey in an old-fashioned, which gives it a drier, spicier taste.
Flavored bourbon is also an option. Try cinnamon whiskey or honey whiskey for a new flavor profile. (I use homemade, but if you go the store-bought route, just know there may be added sugars so you may wish to skip the simple syrup.)
You can also branch out from bourbon and rye. Feel free to use Irish whiskey for an old-fashioned. You might also see rum or scotch on a menu occasionally.
Next you will add two or three dashes of bitters.
Bitters are a strong, alcoholic tincture-like liquid that’s flavored with herbs, spices, flowers, roots and other botanicals. They are added to cocktails to give them an extra subtle flavor.
I prefer to add them toward the end so their aroma is stronger on the nose.
The classic choice for an old-fashioned is Angostura bitters. Recognized by its yellow cap and oversized white label, it’s the top brand of aromatic bitters you will see in bars everywhere.
Aromatic bitters contain extracts of grasses, roots, leaves, zests and fruits dissolved in alcohol, and they provide a nice balance to citrus. But Angostura isn’t the only brand that makes aromatic bitters.
Bitters come in all kinds of flavors, so this is another place you can have fun. Try cherry bitters, cinnamon bitters or, my personal favorite, orange & fig bitters (which is made locally to me here in North Carolina — I love shopping small when I can!).
Check out my list of favorite brands and flavors of cocktail bitters to get some more ideas.
The last piece of the puzzle is a piece of orange peel. I like to use a vegetable peeler to get a 2- to 3-inch piece of peel.
Try to peel lightly so you don’t get as much pith (the white part underneath the peel) which will give off a bitter flavor in your drink.
Give your orange peel a little twist over your drink to let any oils fall in, then drop it into your drink, wedging it up against your ice cube.
You might sometimes see a bartender rub the rim of a glass with the orange peel before they drop it in, which is a nice touch and gives off a little orange scent on the nose when you take your first sip.
That step is totally optional, but hey! We’re here to make the best old-fashioned cocktail recipe, right? Give it a try.
Use lemon, lime or grapefruit peel if you’re in a pinch. Or if you want to play with flavors!
Finally, give your cocktail a stir to gently mix together the whiskey, bitters and zest of the orange.
And now, it’s ready to drink! Ahhh…
Unlike my bartending school recipe above, you don’t need to add club soda to your classic old-fashioned recipe. (It actually made me cringe to see that in my old bartending school textbook.)
Why? Club soda will dilute your nice bourbon! Plus, ice is going to do that anyway.
If the whiskey is too sharp for you, you can add a splash of water, or just wait a moment or two for the ice to melt a tad more. Use club soda at your own risk!
Hope you try my best old-fashioned cocktail recipe, and let me know how you make it your own. Cheers! // susannah
- In a rocks glass, add cocktail cherry and simple syrup. Muddle the cherry into the syrup to release its juices and oils. Add a large piece of ice.
- Pour in the whiskey, then add 2-3 dashes bitters, to taste.
- Twist the orange peel over the drink to release its oils. Rub it around the rim of the glass, then place the orange peel in the cocktail.
- Gently stir the cocktail with a spoon and serve immediately.
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Nutrition Information:Yield: 1 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 334Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 3mgCarbohydrates: 20gFiber: 1gSugar: 17gProtein: 0g