You may hear a lot of talk about sacrilege from mixologists and whiskey purists—it can be easy to agree that good whiskey should never be mixed, that ice is for wimps, or that cocktails are unnecessary. For years I’ve been responding to the myth that there is a wrong way and a right way to consume spirits. My belief is that you should drink whiskey—and all spirits, for that matter—however you damn well please.
There is scientific research to back up adding water to your whiskey for what some call a “bloom of flavor.” There is also scientific evidence that adding ice to your whiskey delivers less flavor. There is science behind the idea that the particular shape of your whiskey glass may help you detect more aroma and, therefore, more flavor.
But does all this science matter? That depends.
Do you want to enjoy your whiskey the way you like it? Or do you want to consume your whiskey the way other people tell you to drink it? Try all variations and decide for yourself; taste is subjective.
As a cocktail, the old fashioned can be one heck of a polarizing topic. I rarely order an old fashioned when I am out—yet if I find someone who makes an excellent one, I will be their best customer as long as they hold that position. But what really grinds my gears—Family Guy fans, you’re welcome—is the idea that there is only one type of old fashioned.
Although other mixed drinks pre-date it, the “old-fashioned whiskey cocktail”—its proper name—is often considered the original cocktail. The historical definition of a cocktail, incidentally, is sugar, water, spirits, and bitters—we first see this explanation in 1806, in a New York newspaper. So, the old fashioned is a category of cocktail.
The whiskey old fashioned has gone through some bad haircuts and fads over the years. Haven’t we all? During Prohibition, it was commonplace to muddle fruits in an old fashioned, and even afterward it continued to be fashionable, to mask the whiskey’s poor quality. Thankfully, the fruit variation fell away as drinkers began to prefer the classic style and bring it back into vogue.
I am a big fan of well-made variations on the whiskey old fashioned, as long as they stay true to the classic build and taste good. The sky is the limit with these variations. Change up your syrup, whiskey, and bitters for endless possibilities.
Here are some of my favorite variations, perfect for fall, winter, and beyond.
Begin with Bitters
Bitters have a long history of flavoring drinks and (allegedly) curing ailments. Though they may seem mysterious, bitters are simply bitter-tasting roots, aromatic herbs, botanicals, and spices infused or tinctured in spirits.
When making bitters, it’s vital to use high-proof alcohol—100 proof or higher is best. Commonly, 151-proof rum is used for making them. You can certainly use a whiskey as well. I like using a high-proof whiskey base because it adds flavor to my bitters. It doesn’t take much to make one bottle of bitters; I usually sacrifice only a couple of ounces of whiskey. I tend to use Booker’s Bourbon.
To make bitters, you want to use whole ingredients; using powder and crushed pieces of botanicals can make it challenging to sift out bits before bottling. However, you should crack some ingredients to release the oils. Your bittering agent should make up anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of your mixture; I tend to stay around 40 percent. My favorite bitter agents are angelica root, cinchona bark, gentian root, wormwood, and citrus peels. You can use only one of these roots with citrus peels, or a mixture of all.
Now that you have your base, you want to add a little sweetener, and my favorites are liquid monk fruit or liquid stevia. The liquid drops are easy to control, and I avoid added sugar. You can undoubtedly use simple syrup as well.
Here is where the fun begins: Choose your herbs and botanicals based on your target flavors. For example, you can add coffee beans and cocoa nibs with orange peels, or basil, lavender, and lemon peels. One of my favorite combinations is cocoa nibs, red chile peppers, anise, cinnamon, and ginger to get a flavor profile like Mexican chocolate.
Add your ingredients to the alcohol in separate jars—you can use small Mason jars—because that makes it easier to control the flavors. The alcohol should completely cover the ingredients, and you should tighten the lid on the jar. Shake the jars every day or two for about a week and a half. Take a sample, and place a few drops on the palm of your hand. If the scent is potent, you’re ready to go. If not, let them sit a while longer. Don’t forget to label the jars with the contents and the date.
Once you’ve finished the bitters, strain out the raw ingredients with a cheesecloth or fine mesh, then you can begin mixing the flavors to create your desired combination. Use distilled water to proof down your bitters to a reasonable bite. To hold your finished bitters, you can purchase amber glass bottles with droppers online, and then you’re ready to rock.
If you’re a baker, syrups are already in your repertoire. For cocktails, however, I always make my syrups more potent. In baking, you usually look for a hint of flavor or delicacy. In cocktails, you need flavors to stand up to the spirit base—even more so with whiskey cocktails.
As with bitters, you can use combinations in your syrups. I recommend using whole ingredients for syrup-making, and I tend to use only organic ingredients. When using delicate herbs, you need to practice perfect timing. When I first began using basil in syrups, it took a while to figure out why I couldn’t achieve consistent flavor. Basil can go from aromatic to bitter in a snap. Use a timer, and you’ll find consistency easy to achieve.
When I’m creating fruit or berry syrups, I like using fresh juices as my base. You can throw blackberries and cooked cranberries in a blender with water and get a juicy liquid. Or, using a juicer, make orange juice as your base. With the juice method, you need less sugar. Add the juice to a pot, and add raw ingredients such as cinnamon sticks, cloves, and fresh ginger. Agave syrup or Demerara sugar, a type of cane sugar with a coarse grain and light tan color, is my preferred sweetener. If using agave syrup, you’ll still need to add a little water to get the liquid thin enough for cocktails.
A rich syrup gets two parts sugar and one part water—but I am not a big fan of sweets, so I am usually a 1:1 girl. Over the years, I’ve created award-winning old-fashioned cocktails using 1:1 syrups. I also prefer their lighter viscosity—but again, these are personal preferences. I can certainly make the case for lighter syrups, from a mixologist’s point of view, but I am still a big fan of personal choice.
There is no hard-and-fast rule on how long to cook your raw ingredients. For the sugar, all you want to do is dissolve it. You don’t need boiling water for that, and it happens very quickly. I rarely boil my raw ingredients. I like a nice steep that pulls the positive flavors out of the ingredients.
Have fun with the flavor combinations here, and think outside the box.
Here are a few award-winning variations on the old fashioned from my archives, and these were all popular on cocktail menus. All their names are connected to music, either the song name or the album title. (I think in music and colors.) Feel free to sip along with the music.
Also, consider splitting your base spirits. I love mixing rye whiskey and a well-aged rum, or adding a half-ounce of a tequila aged in bourbon barrels with a sweet bourbon. With limitless options for variations, you might find the old fashioned to be your new favorite cocktail—if it wasn’t already.
Sharp Dressed Man
2.5 oz Balcones Tres Hombres Texas Whiskey
1 oz syrup of plum, cinnamon, and ginger
4 dashes rhubarb-and-lemon bitters
Add all ingredients to a large mixing glass with a handful of cubed ice, stir well, and strain into an old-fashioned glass over a large cocktail ice cube. Garnish with a dried lemon.
2 oz Whiskey Del Bac Classic Single Malt Whiskey
0.5 oz Whiskey Del Bac Ode to Islay Whiskey
1 oz syrup of ancho chile and blood orange
4 dashes Mexican chocolate bitters
Add all ingredients to a large mixing glass with a handful of cubed ice, stir well, and strain into an old-fashioned glass over a large cocktail ice cube. Garnish with a dried slice of blood orange.
Ride The Lightning
Pinch of wood chips
2.5 oz Blackened Rye The Lightning Whiskey
1 oz syrup of brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne
2 dashes Hella Citrus Bitters
2 dashes Fee Brothers Black Walnut Bitters
Place the wood chips on top of a cutting board, use a culinary torch or cigar torch to light the wood chips on fire, and turn your old-fashioned glass over on top of the wood chips. Allow the glass to fill with smoke while you build your cocktail.
Add the remaining ingredients to a large mixing glass with a handful of cubed ice, stir well, and strain into your smoked old-fashioned glass over a large cocktail ice cube. Garnish with one dash of citrus bitters.