There’s an adage that you can tell how good a bar (or a specific bartender) is by how well they execute one of the really simple classics with few ingredients. An Old Fashioned is one of the better cocktails to use in this test.
Sure you could look at an Old Fashioned simply as booze that has been sweetened and seasoned with bitters, but there is more to an Old Fashioned than that.
And although the core recipe will be the same wherever you go (booze, sugar, bitters), the results can be worlds apart.
An Old Fashioned is not just a test of skill, restraint and balance; it also requires an understanding of the ‘why’ behind the foundation of drink construction.
Thankfully, gone are the days when an Old Fashioned had practically a fruit salad muddled at the bottom of the glass or crowning spurts of soda water or soda pop and the crappy ice which typically sullied the drink.
Instead, modern bartenders have taken the drink back to its roots and pared-down the style. While the Old-Fashioned model can be, and often is, applied to nearly any spirit.
If you didn’t hit the exact right amount of sugar and dilution, you could end up with a drink that was too sweet, too dry, too astringent, too flabby, too strong, too weak. While the elements in the cocktail are few, they all need to be carefully controlled.
The Old Fashioned is a spirit-forward drink – the spirit is the star – it is the backbone. And because the drink so openly celebrates its chosen spirit, that spirit really should be one of quality.
Whether you go with the traditional Bourbon or not, your chosen spirit should be distinct without being dominant. You are looking for a spirit that is full-bodied and full of personality but be aware of every distiller (and sometimes every expression) will have a different nuance.
The thing about what you would like to be drinking if you were drinking the spirit on its own and that will brand, and expression should be the spirit you choose for your Old Fashioned. And the choice you make here will affect the choice you make with the sugars and the bitters.
While gently muddling a sugar cube has a certain romance to it, sugar cubes don’t resolve readily. And can be easily spotted as they tend to leave loose grains of sugar left sitting at the bottom of the glass. Many recommend updating this part of the equation to simple syrup to allow more control and consistency.
Whether you use a cube or syrup, there is more to sweetening than can be provided with plain white sugar. Take a bit of time to experiment with other types of sugars.
A sugar syrup made from Demerara is often thought to bring a richness to the drink but using brown sugar or rich simple syrup may be more your taste.
With such a loose measurement as a dash, it is sometimes hard to contemplate how significant the correct amount of bitters can be. Out of all the cocktails, the Old Fashioned is a drink where you notice this point the most.
Too heavy a hand with the bitters bottle and the bitters will merely end up overpower and cover up all but the most aggressive flavours in your whiskey. On the other hand, too little bitters and you just have sweetened whiskey
The aroma is as important as taste. You should be able to smell, as well as taste the Sweet Orange oils. Expressing the old in the Orange twist and rubbing it around the rim of the glass.
Garnishes ranged from orange twist to lemon twist to a combination of both, known as “rabbit ears.”
Do note if you are using a Lemon twist as well as the Orange, while it is encouraged to express the old over the drink, the twist is never run around the rim as the lemon is less sweet and more tart than Orange and can ruin the palette rather than add to it.
Once you understand the basic mechanics of the Old Fashioned, then it’s easy to imagine riffs on the classic (a few of which we have included here but by no means all).