The old fashioned. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

Phew! I’m exhausted from all the amazing and powerful energy generated by the food fascism post! Oy!

Time for a cocktail! (Figuratively—I’ve got long hours to go before I earn mine.)

Today’s Friday cocktail hour is one the oldest and simplest on record. In this era of high-end mixology and complex recipes involving expensive aperitifs and liqueurs, well unless out in the stratosphere at Aviary, I like my cocktails simple. The Old-Fashioned is just that: American whiskey, sugar, bitters, over ice with a twist. All there is to it. With the range of bourbons and bitters now available, the drink itself can vary wildly and well. So even though this is every bit as simple and satisfying as a martini, it’s infinitely more complex. A martini is clear and clean, an ice pick. The Old-Fashioned is complex, caramelly, bitter, sweet, citrusy. Because there are only three main ingredients, nuance is everything. Choice of bitters (I prefer citrus), amount of bitters (I like plenty), sugar-bitter ratio (I like it even-steven). Traditionally, this is garnished with a twist, but I like an actual squeeze of lemon. It’s up to you, and the hour you’re having it.  Before dinner?  Easy on the sugar and bitters; after, the sugar and bitters are desired.  Again, simplicity and nuance is what I love.

Brad Parsons, leads off his book Bitters with this very cocktail. He notes that it is predated by the “bittered sling.”

“It’s referenced in the classic first printed definition of the word ‘cocktail’ from 1806 in the Hudson Valley newspaper, The Balance and Columbian Repository. …  So, from my understanding, the bittered sling pre-dates the cocktail (as a word, and as a drink), but they’re essentially the same thing—spirits, sugar, water, bitters.”

“Remember, too, that ‘cocktail’ was just one of many categories and classes for drinks. There were flips, slings, daisies, punches, bucks, etc.”

I asked Paulius Nasvytis, owner of Cleveland’s Velvet Tango Room, his preferences, as the Old-Fashioned is his favorite cocktail:

“I prefer a bourbon over rye, but that is entirely subjective,” he wrote. “The bourbon (or rye) should be a big and full-flavored one. Maker’s Mark is my standard, but Bookers, Blantons, Bakers, all up to you. Maker’s has a big flavor with deep caramel and honey notes. Other bourbons, such as Bulleit, are lighter and drier. That one is delicious on its own, but doesn’t have enough spine for an Old-Fashioned. I would not recommend using simple syrup when making an Old-Fashioned.” [Parsons calls for one in his recipe, fyi—M.R.]

“Bitters are becoming much more diverse. I think it is a matter of preference. Personally, I avoid the fruit flavored types, preferring more classic types. Angostura is fine for a mainstream bitters, but more esoteric ones are available and are fun to experiment with.”

“And lastly, if not at the VTR, an ‘Executive Old-Fashioned’ in Chicago’s Coq d’Or in the Drake Hotel is one of my favorite things—atmosphere, solid cocktail, history.”

Thanks, Paulius, that’s what it’s all about. And thanks, Brad.

Additional reading on the Old-Fashioned from Slate.

Herewith, one of the simplest, oldest, and most satisfying cocktails on record.

The Old-Fashioned

  • 4 to 6 grams sugar (about a teaspoon)
  • 4 to 6 grams bitters (about a teaspoon)
  • 60 grams bourbon or rye (2 ounces)
  • Lemon
  1. Place the sugar and bitters in a rocks glass and muddle and stir to get the sugar disolving.
  2. Add the bourbon or rye and stir.
  3. Add ice and a squeeze of lemon (or a twist or orange zest).

If you liked this post on the Old-Fashioned, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved


72 Wonderful responses to “Friday Cocktail Hour: The Old Fashioned”

  • Alex

    For those of us that don’t have good kitchen scales, can someone give a translation into volume measurements?

    • Michael Ruhlman

      how thoughtless of me. very sorry. have just added. and thanks.

  • Donna Feorene

    I am a diehard bourbon lover and I firmly believe that the magic bullet in any mixed bourbon cocktail is always the bitters. Life without bitters is definitely not so sweet!

  • allen

    VTR – that’s the cool place that had the little bitters bottles from the Aviation cocktail post, and the one that got me started on making my own bitters. That is one cool bar.
    I am already starting my Friday cocktail hour having worked my Friday 3rd shift and unwinding with a perfect martini.
    I just stumbled upon this post after having made the martini and I don’t like to mix, so one more tini and off to bed, and luckily I am writing before the second one, they become more nonsensical after two and hopefully get deleted before I discover my err’s and have to appologize.
    As for the bourbon, Makers Mark is my standard for the perfect Manhattan with Angostura bitters Carpano vermouth, cherry and an orange twist. It is economical and all the flavors shine through. If I want to pimp it up I will float a little Bookers on top, I find it too hot and too high of proof for a drink on it’s own.
    My personal favorite is Bakers, right in between the two giants Bookers and Maker’s. My wife’s is Knob Creek, you may want to trust her judgement over mine, as she has much better taste judgement than I do.
    As for the Old Fashioned, I was corrupted with orange as the go to citrus, it is more complimentary to the bourbon and goes well with the citrus bitters – orange bitters being my preference with this beverage, and a muddled orange slice with a cherry garnish.
    I know – Whaahhh, wahhh! , but it’s the little things that make it.
    You could use bottom shelf crap bourbon, but the little little subtle taste differnce in bourbon really do make a differnce, as does the bitters and vermouth, and that little twist of orange and cherry. And not just any cherry, but big meaty juicy Tipsy cherries. This is where a little snobbery is totaly justifed.
    Don’t fk w/ happy hour! That’s why they call it happy hour!
    Cheers! And happy frikn Fridays to all!!!

  • Brian

    A dash of water in there often helps muddle the sugar, and can slightly mellow the flavor of whisky. I prefer it, and it is in most bar books this way.

  • Alex

    Why would you ruin perfectly good bourbon with that other stuff? 🙂

    • MessyONE

      I’m with you. Especially if you’re talking about truly good bourbon, like Noah’s Mill or Rowan Creek.

      Step away from the add-ons!

      • ruhlman

        totally agree. I enjoy good bourbon with one ice cube. on the other hand a ton of bitters and sugar and orange lemon and cherry go along way to dressing up well bourbon (which when I’m feeling financially pinched, and therefore especially thirsty it what I commonly turn to).

  • Dan

    I disagree on the simple syrup. Using sugar or sugar cubes can make the drink grainy and unpleasant on the palate. Simple syrup alleviates that issue.

    • Michael Ruhlman

      i don’t disagree, but i don’t keep simple syrup on hand, and this is easier. parsons calls for ss in his book.

  • Elliott

    I love Old Fashioneds, grew up with brandy but I’ll take the combo of sweet and bitter any way I can get it. And I love it with a little orange, reminds me of childhood. Sweet, tipsy childhood.

  • Flatlander

    I love an Old Fashioned when it is made with rye. Bourbon does not give the right note.

  • Swingin' Jinglers

    I think I am allergic to something in bitters 🙁 whichever ones I try I get a rash on the inside of my mouth. I even bought the Hella’s Bitters on your recommendation and it still happened.

  • Craigkite

    Weights and Measures: The scales are good for controlled substances, but booze has historically been a fluid(volume) measurement. When we drag out the scale to get a buzz…we will start arguing the merits of metric vs avoir du poids and soon need a calculator.

    • ruhlman

      agree on the whole, but for the martini, the 90:18 gram is perfection and can measure right there on the scale, jiggerless.

  • Victor

    I too love this cocktail. In mine, I add a bit of orange zest to the muddle. It goes well with the bourbon, and makes me happy.

  • Alan Hays

    Great post, Michael. As always, thank you and keep up the great work!

  • Adam Jaskiewicz

    I use a brown sugar cube. Saturate with orange bitters, muddle, add two ounces of bourbon or rye, several ice cubes, and a big fat twist of orange rind. Sometimes I’ll toast the rind a little over a match.

  • twoshoes

    hmmm…I’ve never had one. go figure. I generally jrink my bourbon on the wrocks. a triple is a perfect nitecap. the trouble starts when you pour yourself yet “another” nitecap.

  • bruce

    I’m open minded as far as the variety of brands and flavors goes…make it with whatever you like most. But when it comes to choosing the ice and the glass…hello drink snob. They both have to be big; a double old fashioned glass needs 4oz of bourbon (so do you) andy one big ice cube melts slowly enough not to dilute too much. Amazon, Target and Williams Sonoma have the oversized cube trays you need.

  • Charles Curran

    I prefer a ‘Muddled Old Fasion’. Sugar and bitters, orange and a cherry. Muddle everything, then add ice and club soda. Finally lots of ‘Makers Mark’.

  • Tim

    First I read the salumi post and got hungry, now I’m thirsty…
    I’ve always had the “muddled” version but this recipe seems a little cleaner. Hmm… maybe I’ll make both…

  • Carol Melancon

    Rye all the way. I buy it by the case as it is sometimes hard to find. Always have some on hand for Old Fashioneds or Sazeracs.

  • Julie

    Thanks for posting this recipe. Sipping one now after being inspired by your post.

  • Stewart Putney

    Great piece and fun drink to play with. If you want to get real geeky on the syrup vs. cube vs. loose sugar question- you may want to use demerara sugar syrup. The demerara sugar would be more similar to what was used when the drink was first developed. It has a slightly deeper,smokier flavor that often plays well with the bitters. (Orange bitters for me, please).

  • Peter - The Roaming GastroGnome

    What I really like about the Old Fashioned is how the cocktail changes as the ice melts, not quite like a wine opening up, but a akin to adding some spring water to single malt. I always find there’s a point about halfway through an OF where everything is perfectly balanced. It’s there for a moment…then gone, which of course just makes you want to have another!

  • Ryan Silva

    The drink in the photo looks like more liquid than only 2 oz + a tsp worth–barely more than 1/4c. Is that really all there is in that photo?

  • Neil Honaker

    I’m just happy its the week before the Kentucky Derby and somebody is talking about a bourbon cocktail OTHER than the mint julep! Around Lexington, KY, the muddled Old Fashioned is definitely the favorite, most often utilizing homemade bourbon soaked cherries.

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