Classic Old-Fashioned Cocktail

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.

a cocktail cherry and an old-fashioned cocktail on a black and white plaid coaster

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Classic Old-Fashioned Drink Recipe

I will never forget the first time I tried an old-fashioned cocktail, at a friend’s rehearsal dinner in Wisconsin.

Her friend 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.

Why you’ll love this recipe

There is a lot to love about the old-fashioned drink. Here’s why I think you’ll love it.

  • The old-fashioned is a classic cocktail recipe every budding home bartender should know.
  • Whiskey lovers will adore this spirit-forward cocktail.
  • Customize it with your favorite flavors, from flavored syrups to bitters to bourbon.
an old-fashioned in a patterned glass with a sphere ice cube on a black and white plaid coaster

What is an old-fashioned drink?

An old-fashioned drink is a classic cocktail made with whiskey, simple syrup, cocktail bitters, a cocktail cherry and a piece of orange zest.

The old-fashioned is usually made with bourbon whiskey, though it can be made with other types of whiskey like rye and scotch, as well as other spirits like tequila, mezcal and aged rum.

Traditionally made with the addition of cocktail cherries and orange zest, it can be customized with other types of fruit, ice, flavored simple syrups, bitters and even flavored whiskey.

a top view of a bourbon cocktail with a black kitchen towel

How NOT to make an old-fashioned drink

When I went to bartending school, I learned how to make an old-fashioned. 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 (but do not recommend):

  1. Muddle an orange slice and a maraschino cherry in a large rocks glass (affiliate link).
  2. Add a bar spoon each of sugar and bitters.
  3. Fill with ice.
  4. Add 1 1/2 ounce of whiskey.
  5. Dump it into a cocktail shaker, shake, dump it back in the glass.
  6. Top the cocktail with club soda.
  7. Garnish with a “flag” — a toothpick with an orange wedge and a cherry — and serve on a bar napkin.

Following those steps will have you falling out of love with this classic cocktail in no time.

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.

an old-fashioned cocktail with a black kitchen towel and a wooden muddler

Ingredients

The old-fashioned is an easy recipe to customize to your own liking.

Over the years, I have followed that bartending school recipe less and less and less. My husband makes them for himself at least once a week and claims to have perfected my recipe!

This is what we usually put in our old-fashioneds:

  • 1 cocktail cherry
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • large ice cube or sphere
  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 2-3 dashes aromatic bitters, to taste
  • one 3-inch piece of orange peel
a hand lifting a cocktail cherry out of a jar with a copper spoon

The best cocktail cherries

Some old-fashioned recipes don’t call for cherries, and some do. Some folks add a little spoonful of juice for more cherry flavor. It’s all about personal preference.

In my opinion, 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. (Save those for your Shirley Temples.)

Instead, go for a brand name like Luxardo or spring for bourbon cherries like these from Woodford Reserve.

My Cheerwine old-fashioned uses a homemade Cheerwine 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. A few ideas:

Don’t want to use a cherry? Totally fine. You don’t have to, at all. In fact, that is quite popular these days and you won’t find them in plenty of bar old-fashioneds.

a mason jar with mint syrup

Sugar vs. simple syrup

Even though bourbon is fairly sweet on its own, a little bit of sugar helps to cut the strength of the alcohol in an old-fashioned.

Some recipes call for a teaspoon of sugar, but it’s more difficult to get sugar to dissolve.

That’s why I recommend simple syrup, which is an easy-to-make liquid sweetener made with sugar and water.

Simple syrup is something you can make ahead and keep in your fridge to make all your cocktail mixing easier.

For an old-fashioned drink, you can use plain simple syrup or you can flavor it with infusions from fruit, spices and herbs. Try one of these flavors:

If you don’t have simple syrup on hand, try maple syrup instead. (My husband’s favorite recipe is this maple old-fashioned.)

And if you’d rather not sweeten yours, that’s totally fine! Bourbon is pretty sweet on its own.

a wooden muddler and a cocktail cherry with a cocktail

The best whiskey for an old-fashioned cocktail

Known for its lovely, sweet, oaky flavors, bourbon is the most popular type of whiskey for an old-fashioned.

There are tons of brands of bourbon out there. My advice is to buy the best brand(s) you can afford in your quest to find the best bourbon for an old-fashioned drink. 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!

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 peanut butter whiskey, cinnamon whiskey or honey whiskey for a new flavor profile. (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, Canadian whisky or Japanese whisky for an old-fashioned. You might also see rum or scotch on a menu occasionally.

If you’re feeling adventurous, try a smoky mezcal, aged rum or añejo tequila instead of whiskey.

bottles of bitters laying on a grey and white stripe kitchen towel

Does an old-fashioned need bitters?

While they’re not totally necessary, bitters add a little extra fragrance, flavor and complexity to an old-fashioned, making it more well-rounded in taste.

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. Woodford Reserve, Fee Brothers and Scrappy’s are all brands I trust. Infuse Bitters are another favorite because there are real spices and herbs right in the bottle. Try something new!

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.

a cocktail cherry, a muddler and an orange with an old-fashioned cocktail on a black and white plaid coaster

Why is there an orange peel in an old-fashioned?

Orange peel adds a zip of zesty fragrance to every sip and hits on the sour taste receptors on the tongue. This helps to create a balanced drink that tastes good all the way down, as it already hits the sweet receptors (sugar and cherry) and bitter ones (alcohol and bitters).

The orange peel is the final piece of the puzzle. 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 (AKA 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!

a cocktail cherry and an old-fashioned on a black and white plaid coaster

The best ice for old-fashioneds

Next, add ice. I recommend making fresh ice in a sphere mold or a big cube mold.

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.

Try making berry ice cubes or flower ice cubes for a gorgeous presentation.

Rocks glasses vs. old-fashioned glasses

Rocks glasses and old-fashioned glasses are virtually the same.

They are short, heavy-bottomed glasses that are perfect for spirit-forward drinks or sipping whiskey on the rocks.

When it comes to the large rocks glass, there are lots of styles, from plain to etched. You don’t have to have anything fancy!

a close-up view of a cocktail cherry with stem on a black spoon next to an old-fashioned cocktail

How to muddle a cherry

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.

How to make an old-fashioned cocktail

Making an old-fashioned is easy, and you can do it in about 5 minutes or less.

  1. In a rocks glass (affiliate link), add cocktail cherry and simple syrup. Muddle the cherry into the syrup to release its juices and oils. Add a large piece of ice.
  2. Pour in the whiskey, then add 2-3 dashes bitters, to taste.
  3. 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.
  4. Gently stir the cocktail with a spoon and serve immediately.
a wooden muddler and an orange with an old-fashioned drink on a black and white coaster

What to do if your old-fashioned is too strong

Unlike my bartending school recipe above, you don’t need to add club soda to your classic old-fashioned drink. (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!

Old-fashioned drink variations

There are a number of ways to adjust the old-fashioned and make it your own.

Make it non-alcoholic. Use a zero-proof spirit such as Ritual whiskey alternative (affiliate link) to make your old-fashioned.

Flavor it with simple syrup. Have fun with flavored syrups, like Jalapeño Simple Syrup or Lavender Simple Syrup, to change up the flavors.

Use different types of whiskey. Bourbon whiskey is the most classic choice, but there are other types of whiskey to try. A rye old-fashioned or Irish whiskey old-fashioned would both be fantastic. You can even use scotch.

Use another spirit altogether. Did you know you can make an fashioned with other types of alcohol? Try it with sweet rum or smoky mezcal.

a bottle of ritual zero proof brand whiskey alternative on a white countertop with a gold jigger and green and white tea towel.

Non-alcoholic old-fashioned drink

If you would like to enjoy all the flavors of an old-fashioned drink without the booze, there are a number of non-alcoholic whiskey brands out there to try.

You can find zero-proof spirits at specialty shops and online. Here are a few of the best zero-proof whiskeys on the market (affiliate links):

  • Ritual whiskey alternative is my favorite. (I’m an affiliate but I would recommend it anyway!) This non-alcoholic spirit has flavors of vanilla, stone fruit and sugar.
  • Spiritless Kentucky 74 is a non-alcoholic bourbon that’s made in Kentucky and has notes of caramel, vanilla, and oak.
  • Monday Zero Alcohol Whiskey is handcrafted in small batches in a California craft distillery. Matured in new white oak, it has flavors of butterscotch, burnt sugar, caramel and roasted coffee.
  • Lyre’s American Malt Non-alcoholic Spirit is made in Australia and has scents of vanilla, sweet spice, caramel and accents of charred oak.

More old-fashioned cocktail recipes

If you like old-fashioneds, check out these easy recipes:

Hope you try my best old-fashioned cocktail recipe, and let me know how you make it your own. Cheers!

Let me know if you try this recipe! I would love it if you would leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review or comment below to tell me how it goes.

an old-fashioned cocktail with a black kitchen towel and a wooden muddler

Classic Old-Fashioned Drink

Yield: 1 cocktail
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 5 minutes

Every bourbon lover should have the best old-fashioned cocktail recipe up their sleeve! Learn to make this classic whiskey drink once and for all.

Ingredients

  • 1 cocktail cherry
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • large ice cube or sphere
  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 2-3 dashes aromatic bitters, such as Angostura, to taste
  • 3-inch piece of orange peel

Instructions

  1. 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.
  2. Pour in the whiskey, then add 2-3 dashes bitters, to taste.
  3. 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.
  4. Gently stir the cocktail with a spoon and serve immediately.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 1 Serving Size: 3 ounces
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 236Total Fat: 0gSaturated Fat: 0gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 0gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 2mgCarbohydrates: 2gFiber: 1gSugar: 0gProtein: 0g

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