The Old Fashioned cocktail is a taste of cocktail history

Don’t let the simplicity of the Old Fashioned cocktail fool you — it’s a recipe that has persisted more than 200 years.

The Old Fashioned cocktail is a taste of cocktail history

The Old Fashioned Cocktail. It’s a drinker’s cocktail. A couple of good slugs of good whiskey, a little sugar, some bitters and water (from ice) — it’s a drink designed for drinking.

It’s a cocktail that mirrors the earliest written definition of just what a Cocktail (note that capital initial letter) is: in 1806 the Balance and Columbian Repository, an American political newspaper of the era, described it as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”.

That’s right, a Cocktail is a type of drink. Today the term applies any combination of boozy ingredients, but 150 years ago it was a particular recipe.

Holland gin — what we know today as genever — and brandy (or cognac) were the go-to spirits for the Cocktail; the drink became known as the Old Fashioned way of making a cocktail once bartenders had begun experimenting and riffing on the Cocktail, adding curaçao and dashes of flavoured syrups to the mix.

The Old Fashioned Cocktail is a modest formulation. On the reading of its recipe it’s not much more than a tricked up double of whiskey, with sugar and bitters and water to get it down quicker.

The only complications you need to consider is your whiskey. Do you use rye or bourbon? It’s really up to you. Pick rye for a spicier, fruitier drink; opt for bourbon if you’re after something a little more rounded.

But don’t let that simple recipe fool you; the Old Fashioned is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a bracingly cold, rich and flavoursome first sip in a low-ceilinged bar; it tastes slightly different depending on the maker and the whiskey at hand. That’s why it never loses interest to its drinkers, and its adaptability is perhaps why it has persisted for more than 200 years.

The popular uptake of the Old Fashioned today you can chart back to the combination of bartenders reacquainting themselves with the means of making the drink properly, and Mad Men’s Don Draper and his seeming unquenchable thirst for the stuff.

Old Fashioned


  • 60ml of rye or bourbon
  • 5ml sugar syrup
  • 2-3 dashes of aromatic bitters


  1. In a mixing glass, stir down all ingredients with ice.
  2. Strain into a rocks glass over a good lump of ice.
  3. Squeeze a lemon — some prefer orange — peel over the top of the drink.

Cocktail historian David Wondrich has written out that the Cocktail was more tonic than polite society drink; hence the drink’s shortness, and its earliest prescription that it should be made with chilled water (and not loads of crushed ice). Snap it back.