When it comes to whiskey cocktails, there is really none more important than the one that launched a thousand other drinks: the Old Fashioned. Of course there are others that are just as iconic in the whiskey world, like the Manhattan, Sazerac, or Whiskey Sour. But the humble Old Fashioned, built simply around just three ingredients (whiskey, bitters, and sugar) is the OG of the cocktail world. The drink’s origins can be traced back to the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky., where bartender James E. Pepper is often credited with its invention. But others look as far back as 1806, when the then- newfangled concept of the “cocktail” was described in the Balance and Columbian Repository as a combination of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar — essentially an Old Fashioned.
Flash forward to present day, and the Old Fashioned remains one of the most popular whiskey drinks. This wasn’t always the case, though, especially during the 1970s and ‘80s, when bourbon sales declined and drinkers turned to clear spirits, particularly vodka, over aged brown liquor. But bourbon has reclaimed its rightful throne at the top of the spirits kingdom, and people are ordering Old Fashioneds at bars and restaurants around the country, as well as making them at home. It’s not just bourbon, either — you can make this cocktail with mezcal, rum, and barrel-aged gin, not to mention whiskey (and whisky) from other countries like Ireland, Scotland, and Japan. But at its core, this is a bourbon cocktail, and the best version is often the most basic one.
The Old Fashioned also happens to be an excellent choice as the summer fades into the cooler fall and early winter months, when people start to crave aged brown spirits after a summer of gin and vodka drinks. There’s something about the return of the chill in the air that just makes people want to drink some properly aged bourbon instead of a Gin and Tonic. And Bulleit is the essential bourbon to consider for all your cocktail needs, including, of course, in an Old Fashioned. It’s made from a high rye mash bill, meaning that the percentage of rye, the flavoring grain in the recipe, is higher than in other bourbons. Of course, corn is the main ingredient, as the legal definition of bourbon requires. But the higher amount of rye used in Bulleit means that the palate has some spice and black pepper notes, which in turn yields a drink that won’t be too sweet even when adding sugar, as is the case with the Old Fashioned.
Despite its simplicity, there are some general “dos and don’ts” to consider when making an Old Fashioned. Of course, the most important thing is for you to make your cocktail just the way you like it, but these simple rules will help to ensure that your Old Fashioned is one you’ll want to make over and over again.
1. Don’t add a bunch of fruit to your Old Fashioned. You may have seen this drink made with a huge slice of orange and a couple of bright red, artificially colored Maraschino cherries floating around, thanks to a popular 1950s iteration. All this is unnecessary and will ultimately turn the drink into more of a Shirley Temple than a sturdy bourbon-forward drink.
2. Do use an orange peel to garnish your Old Fashioned. That’s all you need — a freshly cut peel of orange, which you can express over the drink before dropping it in to release the natural oil from the citrus into your glass. This will not take over the drink, but it will add a bright, crisp hit of freshness to this classic. And the vanilla and spice you’ll find in Bulleit pairs particularly well with this hit of citrus.
3. Don’t use a low-proof bourbon. We’re not talking barrel-strength here (although consider Bulleit’s high-octane Barrel Strength expression if you really want to go big). But 80 proof whiskey often just doesn’t have the flavor or complexity that you want for an Old Fashioned. After all, since bourbon is the main ingredient, you want to make sure the whiskey shines. Bulleit is bottled at 90 proof, which is sort of a Goldilocks ABV — not too hot, and the bourbon definitely won’t get lost even as the ice melts.
4. Speaking of ice, do use one large spherical ice cube instead of crushed or cubed ice. This means your Old Fashioned won’t get watered down too quickly because a large ice cube has less surface area and will melt more slowly. Admittedly, there is some debate about how the size of your ice really affects dilution. But the bottom line is that a large cube also makes your sipping experience more pleasurable without a bunch of cubes floating around in the glass.
5. Do build your Old Fashioned in the glass you are drinking it in. You could add all the ingredients to a mixing glass, throw in some ice, stir, and strain into a tumbler over a large ice cube. That works fine, but you can also add the bitters and sugar or simple syrup directly into your rocks glass, stir it all together, add your bourbon and ice, and stir again. And if you’re just preparing just one drink for yourself, why not simplify the process and eliminate a step?
6. Finally, do use a high-quality bourbon, like Bulleit Bourbon. There are cheaper options available, but a general rule of thumb when making a cocktail is that you probably want to use something you’d drink neat. This concept is similar to cooking with wine — use something you’d enjoy drinking on its own instead of the really cheap stuff to deglaze your pan. Bulleit should be the first bottle you reach for when making an Old Fashioned, given its availability, affordability, and high quality.
Now that you’re ready to make an Old Fashioned for yourself at home, here’s an easy recipe to try:
Bulleit Old Fashioned
1.25 ounces Bulleit Bourbon
2 bar spoons simple syrup
3 dashes aromatic bitters
1 orange peel
Add the simple syrup and bitters to a large rocks glass and stir a few times. Add one large spherical ice cube and the bourbon, then stir about 20 times until cold with a bar spoon. Twist the orange peel over the drink to express the oil, then drop it in and enjoy.
This article is sponsored by Bulleit.