Man, if there’s anything to celebrate in 2020, it’s that it’s over. And what better way to celebrate than with a good cocktail?
We wanted to take a deep dive and individually test each ingredient in a classic Old Fashioned to really come up with that cocktail bar-worthy beverage. Good news: We think we’ve done it.
What is an Old Fashioned?
In simple terms, an Old Fashioned is a cocktail made of bourbon, sugar, bitters, orange, and a cherry. But depending on quality and quantity of ingredients, you can get a pretty wide spectrum of flavors. So we did extensive testing to ensure we perfected the recipe.
What’s the Best Sugar in an Old Fashioned?
The first question we tried to answer was what kind of sugar tastes best in an Old Fashioned. The second question was if simple syrup or a sugar cube is superior. Therefore, we tested the following sugars in our cocktail:
- Turbinado Simple Syrup
- Organic Cane Simple Syrup
- Cane Sugar Simple Syrup
- Turbinado Sugar Cube
- Pure Cane Brown Cube
- White Cane Cube
- Agave Sweetener
- Maple Syrup
Simple Syrup versus Sugar Cube:
It ended up being very difficult to get any of the sugar cubes to fully dissolve. We tried muddling them, adding them into some of the bourbon, and anything else we could think of. The best trick we had and one that can work in a pinch is to dissolve the sugar cube in hot water first. It’s sort of like a quick-and-easy simple syrup. It isn’t perfect, but it works if that’s all you have or you don’t want to make simple syrup.
Simple syrup is superior. It makes mixing and getting the appropriate amount of sweetness much easier.
In our testing, turbinado simple syrup made the best Old Fashioned. We tested turbinado sugar, organic cane sugar, and regular cane sugar simple syrup side by side in otherwise identical cocktails. Although any would work, the turbinado made a more complex Old Fashioned and ended up being the clear winner.
The organic cane sugar was a good alternative, but the regular cane sugar ended up lacking depth of flavor and would be our last choice.
Alternative sweeteners were okay, with agave being the best. We tested agave, maple syrup, and honey next to each other in otherwise identical cocktails. The honey was nearly impossible to dissolve. The maple syrup left an unpleasant, maple-y taste. The agave dissolved the best and was the best sugar alternative.
How much simple syrup should I add to my Old Fashioned? We found the sweet spot to be 2 teaspoons (or 2 bar spoons). Many recipes call for a single teaspoon, or you might prefer a sweeter drink, but we found 2 teaspoons really balanced the cocktail perfectly.
Which Bourbon Brand is Best in an Old Fashioned?
We tried as many bourbons as we could get our hands on that would be widely available. The bourbon you use will probably have the greatest impact on the taste of the drink. Using a local or small batch bourbon would also be a nice twist on this classic drink if you are able to locate one.
We found the best cocktails were made using one of these three bourbons:
- Angel’s Envy
- Four Roses small batch
- Heaven’s Door
We also liked:
- Elijah Craig
- Old Forester 1870
- Knob Creek
These bourbons made acceptable cocktails, but didn’t have the same high-quality outcome as we saw with the other cocktails:
- Woodford Reserve
- Basil Hayden’s
- Four Roses Yellow Label
- High West American Prairie
- Old Forester
- Buffalo Trace
What Cocktail Cherries are Best in an Old Fashioned?
This was a fun experiment as most recipes just call for adding a marschino cherry or cocktail cherry. How much of a difference could it make?
Turns out, a huge difference. If the cherry is the “icing on the cake” of a cocktail, then you want to get it right.
We tested any cherry we could easily find. That included:
Cherries in Heavy Syrup:
- Maraska (we got these in store for ~$20)
- Luxardo (This is a link for 2 jars. In store, these were ~$20)
Cherries in Light Syrup:
And three cherries we tried we weren’t fans of:
The biggest difference in cocktail cherries is the thickness of syrup. It was very interesting to learn that some cherries are dripping in syrup that resembles molasses and some are in a very light syrup that is closer to a light maple syrup.
Maraschino cherries are fine if that’s your only option, but they’re not preferred. Since this recipe is really taking that cocktail from “decent” to “I’d happily pay for that at a cocktail bar,” this is one of those details that’s easy to overlook but can be a game changer. Getting a nice jar of cherries significantly improves the drink.
Our favorite “thick syrup” cherry was the Maraska. Maraska, Luxardo, and Fabbri are all decent cherries and enjoyable, but we’d go for Maraska if you can find them.
Our favorite “light syrup” cherry was the Woodford Reserve cherry. However, the Jack Rudy was almost equally enjoyable.
What’s the Best Way to Add an Orange to an Old Fashioned?
This shouldn’t be a huge issue, right? Just get a little orange in there. Wrong.
We found numerous restaurants and recipes calling for different ways to add the orange into the cocktail. This included:
- Muddle in an orange slice
- Squeeze an orange slice over the drink
- Spritz an orange peel over the drink
- Some combination of the above
An orange peel spritzed over the drink was the perfect balance. Although muddling in an orange slice is a fun infusion, it too easily overpowered the drink and ruined the overall flavor.
Spritzing an orange peel gave the right citrus zest but didn’t ruin the otherwise deep flavors of the drink.
Ice for an Old Fashioned (and How to get Big Clear Ice Cubes)
Ice serves a basic purpose — a way to make a cold drink. But it also has the ability to elevate a drink to bar-style quality. You have a few options with your ice, but we have a preferred one for an Old Fashioned. Here’s what we tested:
- Use your standard ice cube (from an ice maker or mold) to make the drink/fill the glass
- Use small square cubes (we like these from Peak as they have a wire rim and protective cover)
- Use large square cubes (we like these from Peak as they have a wire rim and protective cover)
- Our favorite: Use clear square cubes (we like these from True Cubes as this was the only mold that made high-quality clear ice cubes)
A quick note on clear ice cubes. They melt slower and keep your drink cooler. Making clear ice cubes isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some of it comes down to the purity of the water, but the real trick to making clear ice at home is slowly chilling the water.
We tested multiple makers to do this at home and by far our favorite was the True Cubes ice mold.
What are the best bitters for an Old Fashioned?
This one was tough. As a reminder, we tried to use ingredients that were broadly available.
There are certainly some amazing craft bitters that are available, and we encourage you to try them if you find one of interest.
For this cocktail, we tried:
We did try some local craft bitters and they were fun, but our best results were using a combination of the above.
Our favorite blend was 3 dashes Angostura and 3 dashes orange bitters. The Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters would work but ended up being a bit sweet when using our recommended simple syrup recipe.
How to Make an Old Fashioned
Step 1: Gather Ingredients
- Simple Syrup
- Cocktail Cherry
Step 2: Add Simple Syrup, Bitters, and Ice
- Add 2 bar spoons simple syrup to cocktail glass.
- Add 3 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters and 3 dashes Orange Bitters.
- Add a large ice cube.
Step 3: Add Bourbon
- Add 2 ounces of your favorite (or our recommended) bourbon.
Step 4: Stir
- Stir, ideally for 1 minute and for no less than 20-30 seconds. Stirring longer will make your drink colder.
Step 5: Garnish
- Spritz an orange peel (see video) and add to drink.
- Add a cocktail cherry and enjoy.
Helpful Notes & Tips
- A great bar spoon is a huge win with this cocktail. A spoon with a spiral pattern makes quick stirs significantly easier.
- Large ice cubes not only add to the character of the drink, they keep the drink colder, longer. If you’re trying to elevate your cocktail game, get some clear ice cube makers.
- If you made a fresh batch of simple syrup, it’ll keep for a couple weeks. Storing in a sealed, pourable bottle and refrigerating always helps. You could also use any jar that seals well for storage.
More Cocktail Recipes
If you try this recipe, let us know! Leave a comment, rate it, and don’t forget to tag a photo #minimalistbaker on Instagram. Cheers, friends!
Best Bourbon Old Fashioned
- 2 tsp simple syrup (made with turbinado sugar // see notes for method)
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 3 dashes orange bitters
- 1 large ice cube
- 2 oz bourbon (we prefer Angel's Envy, Four Roses small batch, or Heaven's Door)
- 1 piece orange peel
- 1 whole cocktail cherry (we prefer Woodford Reserve or Jack Rudy)
- To a cocktail glass, add 2 tsp (2 bar spoons) of simple syrup (we prefer making our simple syrup with 1 part turbinado sugar and 1 part water — see notes for method).
- Add 3 dashes Angostura bitters.
- Add 3 dashes orange bitters.
- Add a large ice cube to the glass.
- Add 2 ounces (60 ml) of bourbon.
- Stir, ideally for 1 minute and for at least 20 seconds.
- Spritz an orange peel over the glass to release its oils. Then twist the peel and add to the glass.
- Top with a cocktail cherry.
- Cheers and repeat!
*Use organic turbinado sugar for homemade simple syrup if wanting to ensure recipe is vegan-friendly.