Smile Politely

Cocktails 101: The (Whiskey) Old Fashioned

I’m back on the wagon (so to speak) after a week off for holiday madness, and, since I’m sure everyone is still groggy and not interested in thinking too hard, I’m going to talk about one of the simplest cocktails possible — the original cocktail, more or less. The Old-Fashioned, as it is now known, is Dickensian in a seasonally-appropriate fashion, insofar as it can be both the best and worst of cocktails. As you might imagine, in Champaign-Urbana you’re unfortunately more likely to receive the latter than the former, but herein I make clear that you can and should demand something actually worth drinking as well as the exact ingredients needed to make that happen.

The Old-Fashioned is an excellent introduction to the idea of cocktail bitters. Bitters are alcoholic infusions of bitter and aromatic substances, originating from 18th and 19th century “patent medicine” (read: “snake oil”), and are still occasionally used as a stomach settler today (ginger ale and Angostura bitters are a bartender’s home-remedy). Because of their intense flavor, capable of significantly altering a drink with only a few drops, bitters played an essential role in pre-Prohibition cocktail-making. While there were originally many varieties, most died off after Prohibition, leaving Peychaud’s (anise-flavored bitters originating from New Orleans) and Angostura (a clove, cinnamon, and orange-peel concoction from Trinidad) as the only commonly available types. In recent years, with the revival of classic cocktail culture, the number of available bitters has soared. It’s now once again easy to obtain classic-style bitters, like orange, lemon, and celery, as well as more nouveau creations, like the delicious-but-odd Xocolatl Mole Bitters. It’s also dead easy to make your own, something I’ll cover later, but if you can’t wait, click here to learn more.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the word “cocktail” originally meant a mix of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters. Thus, the name “Old-Fashioned” must have originated shortly after the linguistic drift of “cocktail” began in earnest, in order to distinguish the drink from scrappy upstarts like the Bronx Cocktail. Unfortunately, somewhere in the mid-20th century, bartenders acquired a deeply-held belief that, in addition to the spirit and bitters, Old-Fashioneds should contain a bunch of muddled fruit (the “garbage”, in bar-parlance), seemingly fleeing from a tiki drink. Or, even worse, a topper of seltzer, Sprite, or 7-Up, and in the most dire cases, a dash of Cherry Heering might be added. Not only does this make a terrible, muddy-tasting drink, but it takes what should be a model of simplicity and ease and turns it into a real production.

So here’s what should be in an Old-Fashioned. The real deal, as manly as the name suggests. Liquor, a little burst of spice from the bitters, and just enough sweetness to smooth the drink’s transition into your gullet. The only fruit involved is the peel from a lemon or orange (no juice at all, please); maraschino cherries, those zombie fruits, don’t even belong in the same room as this drink. I’ve literally run out of amusing ways to say “no” to things that don’t belong in this drink, so I’m going to just say that, if I make fun of it above or don’t list it below, please don’t add it. I promise I’m only trying to help.

As with the original cocktail, the Old-Fashioned can be made with almost any base liquor, as long as it has some body, since it’s going to be 90% of the final drink. Vodka and gin are therefore inappropriate, as are white rum, unaged cachaça, grappa, pisco, corn whiskey and other moonshine, blanco tequila, eau de vies, and so on forever. Whiskey is traditional, but I like a good (aged) tequila Old-Fashioned, and the proper brandy will yield a lovely drink. Just remember that you have to like the base, as it’s going to be most of what you’re drinking. Choice of bitters is also flexible, but if you don’t have any already, pick up Angostura — they’re ubiquitous and delicious, and are absolutely essential for making Manhattans, something you’re going to want to do.

The (Whiskey) Old-Fashioned

* 2 oz whiskey (American for preference – Scotch is weird, here)
* 1-2 tsp simple syrup
* 1-2 dashes bitters (Angostura are a fine starting choice)
* 1 peel, lemon or orange

In a tumbler or rocks glass, combine first three ingredients. Fill with ice, stir well to combine, and squeeze the peel over top so that the aromatic oils are expressed. Drop in. Stir once more, and drink.


It is almost impossible to make an easier drink. Make sure to stir enough that the ice melts a bit, which will smooth and soften the cocktail just enough. An Old-Fashioned is one of those drinks that actually benefits from sitting for a few minutes, if you can put it off that long. Because of the warm-spice flavors of the whiskey and bitters, this is a great winter drink, suited to a long night by the fire (if you have a fireplace, that is — you lucky jerk). Once you get used to the basic outline, try varying it a bit, either by changing base liquors (reposado or añejo tequila, I promise!) or by making Improved Old-Fashioneds by adding dashes (a dash is 1/8th of a teaspoon, so go easy here) of absinthe, orange curaçao, or maraschino liqueur.

And, bonus cocktail — the Sazerac, darling of the new classic cocktail scene, is essentially a rye whiskey Old-Fashioned with Peychaud’s bitters and a dash of absinthe. This gives it a lovely licorice flavor and a beautiful pink color (nothing so pink has ever tasted so masculine, I promise). Sure, many people give arcane instructions for the construction of a Sazerac: first freeze a glass, then coat it with absinthe in a counter-clockwise direction (v. important), then use a muddler made from a narwhal horn to crush a single sugar cube… sheesh — but it’s really that simple. Try it when you get bored of the original!


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