Spirits, bitters, sugar, water. Since the early 1800s, those are the four elements that have defined the cocktail. And while it's easy to believe otherwise, given the dazzling heights to which contemporary bar menus aspire, those four building blocks are all a cocktail requires. What you do with them, though — that's where inspiration, regional tastes and ingenuity come in.
For my money, the Old-Fashioned is the elegant apex of these four elements' harmonious combination. According to David Wondrich's history "Imbibe!," the Old-Fashioned came about as a reaction to the increasingly complex modern mixology inventions of Gilded Age bartenders: Don't make me a whiskey cocktail — with god knows what flourishes and fancies — I'll take an old-fashioned cocktail, please. (History just repeats itself, doesn't it?) "The Old-Fashioned," Wondrich writes, "was a drinker's plea for a saner, quieter, slower life."
Life is hard; ordering an Old-Fashioned is easy. Maybe a "saner, quieter, slower life" in practice sounds appealing but out of reach. But there is something to be said for the practice of stripping all the complicated extras and conveniences we pile onto our lives down to reveal the basic elements we need to thrive: Spirits. Bitters. Sugar. Water. If we can do that with a cocktail, is there another part of life to which we could apply the same simplified rigor?
Once upon a time, I thought mixing cocktails — anything more complicated than liquor + mixer, really — was an activity best left to the professionals. Anything categorized as "old fashioned" was sure to be fussy and complicated with a steep learning curve like sewing my own clothes. Then my friend and cocktail expert Jared Schubert called me one summer day to assist him like a vagabond Vanna while he gave a talk and demonstration on the Old-Fashioned at a music festival's bourbon tent. That's where he blew my mind with the basic elements and showed me a pathway to their wild possibilities and elegant limits.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter.
Now, Jared is brilliant. Whether you need dozens of different bespoke cocktails created for an afternoon tasting event or one day-long in-depth clinic on a single bourbon, he should be your first call. I am . . . not. Neither trained in the mixing arts nor a mad genius behind the bar. But after that event, I realized that even I — a person too messy to take on more than a neat pour — could mix a beautiful Old-Fashioned. And what's more, I could refer back to those four elements to mix up any number of drinks on a whim, based on what I have on hand, without needing to run to the store. When I visit a good bar, of course, I want a professional creator like Jared or those Gilded Age inventors to surprise me. At home, though, the Old-Fashioned helps me practice the saner, quieter, slower life I crave.
Originally, an Old-Fashioned could be made with whiskey, brandy, or Holland or Old Tom gins. These days a standard base is bourbon or rye. Muddle a sugar cube with a few dashes of bitters (and a splash of water, if you need it, but "water" in the Old-Fashioned can just be the ice), stir in whiskey, serve over a big ice cube with a lemon or orange peel. Deceptively simple. The result is a soft and sublime transformation of a good whiskey, while still allowing it to hold center stage.
I used to only take my Old-Fashioneds with bourbon, but lately I've been reaching for rye whiskey for the extra bite — Peerless Rye, Willett Rye 4-year, or Russell's Reserve Single Barrel Rye are some of my go-to bottles — to build the drink around. If you're just starting to build your Old-Fashioned preferences, your favorite whiskey is a good place to start.
Every home bar should have a bottle of Angostura, but I also like playing around with my bitters to add slightly different dimensions to the Old-Fashioned flavor. With a Rye Old-Fashioned, I'm enjoying Cocktail Punk's Saturnalia bitters (cranberry, toasted walnut, citrus) or Old Forester's Bohemian bitters (sour cherries, clove, smoked black pepper, cacao). Bitters typically come in small bottles, so they're easy to store, and building a small collection is an easy way to adapt classic recipes without much risk. Also, you can add them to cold seltzer with a squeeze of lemon for a refreshing non-alcoholic, carbonated drink.
Serving size: One drink
- 2 oz. whiskey
- 1 sugar cube
- Orange or lemon peel
- One large ice cube for serving
You don't need any specialty equipment to mix a simple cocktail — you can muddle and stir with the same cereal spoon. Improvise with what you have. But here's what I keep at hand:
- Rocks glass
- Jigger or measuring device (a standard shot glass holds 1.5 oz, if you're eyeballing it)
- Cocktail shaker
- Bar spoon
- Small knife or peeler
Chill a rocks glass. In your mixer glass, add a couple dashes of bitters to a sugar cube, and muddle them together until the sugar is dissolved. Add ice, then whiskey. Stir until good and chilled, then strain into the rocks glass over one large ice cube. (Regular ice is fine! Just use 2-3 cubes.) Pinch the peel over the drink to release the oils, then let it sink into the drink.
If you're in Wisconsin, you know they do an Old-Fashioned differently there: The sugar is muddled with an orange slice and cocktail cherry, then you mix in brandy and top with soda water. You can also riff on an Old-Fashioned with a good aged dark rum — reach for orange bitters, or even allspice dram, and if your rum is a sweeter variety, maybe go lighter on the sugar.
More Oracle Pour:
- How to make a Sazerac, a New Orleans cocktail with a sweet and spicy bite
- How to make a Gold Rush, a bourbon cocktail that's reminiscent of the classics
- How to make a Calvados Sour, the perfect cocktail to enjoy on a cozy autumn day
Salon Food writes about stuff we think you'll like. Salon has affiliate partnerships, so we may get a share of the revenue from your purchase.