“The Old Fashioned is beautiful in its simplicity,” Aren Bellando, the lead bartender at SideDoor and Lawry’s the Prime Rib in Chicago, says. “It can be taught to a layman in less than a minute, but it’s consistently botched by some bartenders who have been behind the stick for years.”
The trick is to treat Old Fashioneds with care. The drink seems straightforward, since there are only three ingredients (four if we count the garnish, and we actually really should).
But if you want to make a truly great Old Fashioned at home, you’re going to have to mind the details. Think of the garnish and even ice as equally important as your whiskey, bourbon, or rye. Measure all your ingredients, and be deliberate with each step.
We polled five bartenders for their tips and tricks for making excellent Old Fashioneds. Here is everything you need to know.
What To Do
1. Be Choosy About Your Garnish.
In a drink this carefully composed, the garnish isn’t decorative. It will absolutely affect the taste of your finished product.
“As pretentious as it may sound, if I ever notice a bartender muddling old orange slices and fake candy-red cherries into a glass, I know I’ll be drinking beer that evening,” Bellando says of the importance of Old Fashioned garnishes.
Cocktail cherries, a popular Old Fashioned garnish, are only advisable if you like your drinks on the sweeter side. Jarred fruit, especially those bright red, artificial cherries that come packed in syrup, will quickly throw off your sweet-bitter balance, especially if you muddle them.
Opt for a lemon and orange twist instead — but choose your citrus carefully.
“Select citrus with large dimples in its skin,” Jim Kearns, bar director and managing partner at The Happiest Hour and Slowly Shirley, says. Those dimples are a surefire sign your produce is rich with aromatic oils that will scent your drink when you express them over the surface.
It’s a quick, easy, and extremely affordable way to elevate your cocktail.
2. Use One Big Ice Cube.
Those oversized cubes you see at fancy cocktail bars aren’t just for show. They actually preserve the caliber of your Old Fashioned.
Any drink served with ice will dilute as the cubes melt. The trick with a spirit-forward cocktail like the Old Fashioned is managing dilution.
“Lots of people don’t realize the importance of proper dilution,” Stefan Gagliano, assistant food & beverage director, The Restaurant at Mr. C Beverly Hills, says. He recommends using one solid, two-inch ice cube in order to create “a more balanced cocktail with the right viscosity.”
Large cubes have less surface area than small or crushed ice, so they melt slower and more evenly. Your drink, therefore, mellows gently and elegantly as you sip.
3. Stir Once Or Twice. Then Stop.
Speaking of dilution, over-stirring your cocktail is another surefire way to water it down.
Amanda Swanson of NYC’s Añejo suggests building the drink in the glass you plan to serve it in. That way, you don’t slosh the cocktail and its ice cube around while transferring it from one vessel to another (this is effectively the same as stirring).
“An Old Fashioned by nature is designed to change over the course of its drink,” Swanson says. The cube will melt as you’re drinking it, so you want to start out sipping something potent and pristine.
What To Avoid
1. Save Your Best Whiskey.
The Old Fashioned is a spirit-forward cocktail, so you might think it’s the ideal showcase for your most prized whiskey, bourbon, or rye. Not so, bartenders say. The flavors of the sugar and bitters are strong enough here that a truly top-of-the-line spirit isn’t necessary.
“You’ll lose the nuances and complexity of a high-quality bourbon,” Gagliano says. “Go for a mid-level quality bottle.”
“My personal preference for a good, all-purpose Old Fashioned is Wild Turkey 101º Rye,” Kearns says.
(That said, if you’re making this cocktail on your wedding night, or you generally live large, you certainly won’t hate a top-shelf version. “For a special occasion, or my eventual exile to a desert island, I’d go with Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye,” Kearns says.)
2. No Floats Allowed.
“Don’t ever use soda water as a topper,” Kenneth McCoy, chief creative office, Public House Collective in NYC, says. “I’ve seen this at a very reputable bar and I almost had a heart attack — you just made me whiskey soup!”
Garnish notwithstanding, there are exactly three ingredients in an Old Fashioned: whiskey, sugar, and Angostura bitters. If you want to add soda water to your drink, that’s absolutely your prerogative! Just know that a bubbly water float means it’s technically no longer an Old Fashioned. That’s more of a flavor-infused whiskey soda.
Are we being fussy? Of course we are. That’s how good drinks become great.