Best Bourbon Old Fashioned Recipe (+ Video)

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Holding a cocktail cherry over an Old Fashioned

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?

Cane sugar, turbinado sugar, sugar cubes, and more sugars for making cocktails

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
  • Honey
  • Maple Syrup
Three different types of homemade simple syrup for cocktails

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.

Bottles of honey, maple syrup, and agave

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?

Assortment of bourbon bottles we compared for making 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
  • Larceny
  • 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 
  • Bulleit
  • Old Forester
  • Buffalo Trace 

What Cocktail Cherries are Best in an Old Fashioned?

Assortment of cocktail cherries including in heavy and light syrup

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)
  • Fabbri

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)

Types of ice cube trays for making cocktails

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?

Three bottles of bitters for making 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

  1. Simple Syrup
  2. Bitters
  3. Bourbon
  4. Orange
  5. Cocktail Cherry
Orange, bitters, cocktail cherries, simple syrup, and bourbon whiskey for making an Old Fashioned

Step 2: Add Simple Syrup, Bitters, and Ice

Adding a clear ice cube to a glass of bitters

Step 3: Add Bourbon

  • Add 2 ounces of your favorite (or our recommended) bourbon.
Pouring bourbon over a clear ice cube in a glass

Step 4: Stir

  • Stir, ideally for 1 minute and for no less than 20-30 seconds. Stirring longer will make your drink colder.
Using a bar spoon to stir an Old Fashioned

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!

Orange peel and cocktail cherry in a Classic Old Fashioned

Best Bourbon Old Fashioned

The perfected recipe for how to make a bar-quality Old Fashioned cocktail at home, every time. Just 6 ingredients and simple methods required.
Author Minimalist Baker
Print
Glass of our perfect Old Fashioned recipe
5 from 11 votes
Prep Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes
Servings 1 (cocktail)
Course Beverage, Cocktail
Cuisine American
Freezer Friendly No
Does it keep? No

Ingredients

  • 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)

Instructions

  • 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!

Video

Notes

*To make simple syrup, add 1 part sugar (we prefer turbinado for complexity) and 1 part water to a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring frequently until sugar is dissolved. Cool, pour into a jar or squeeze bottle, and use as instructed. Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
*Use organic turbinado sugar for homemade simple syrup if wanting to ensure recipe is vegan-friendly.

Nutrition (1 of 1 servings)

Serving: 1 cocktail Calories: 172 Carbohydrates: 8.4 g Protein: 0 g Fat: 0 g Saturated Fat: 0 g Polyunsaturated Fat: 0 g Monounsaturated Fat: 0 g Trans Fat: 0 g Cholesterol: 0 mg Sodium: 1 mg Potassium: 2 mg Fiber: 0.1 g Sugar: 8.3 g Vitamin A: 1.94 IU Vitamin C: 27.72 mg Calcium: 2.32 mg Iron: 0.04 mg

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  1. Cinstress says

    I could not love this deep-dive into the Old Fashioned, more! I am obsessed with this bev and am going broke bellying up at my local. I have had mixed results concocting this on my own, so will def give it a go using your studied recommendations. Thanks so much!

  2. Cynthia Tonseth says

    The Old Fashioned was my dads favorite drink. He passed away 1/26/20. So in his honor we made your recipe to celebrate my father’s life . This recipe is fabulous, so smooth, so nice. We used the Angel’s Envy bourbon and the Maraska cherries… wow… and we made the big cube ice cubes like you showed. It made for a very special remembrance. Thank you so much !!

    • Support @ Minimalist Baker says

      Aw, what a lovely way to remember him! We’re so glad you enjoyed it, Cynthia. Thanks so much for sharing! xo

  3. AbbyT says

    I consider myself an intermediate home cocktailer (?), having lived several years in Hong Kong where the bars are beyond fancy and the mixologists competitively inventing the most delicious concoctions I’ve ever had in my life. (You have to see it, at least once!) It was a bit before mixology had really broadened stateside and it started my hubs and I on a path of syrups and shrubs and bitters and a disturbing whisk(e)y and gin collection. But man, few drinks beat a well made Old Fashioned and you nailed it! Certainly it’s a drink with a lot of … uh… ‘opinions,’ but it’s had several makeovers over Many years and heck, frankly I’d drink them all if the bourbon’s right! But I’m a sucker for the classic, and been seeing many high end bourbon-focused bars shifting to the modern rich/demarura/turbinado simple syrup and hadn’t tried it til now. I’d been getting lazy in technique anyway, like bulking 2 drinks into one mixing glass, which isn’t the same result to me. You brought me back to the true spirit of make-in-the-glass perfection, with the modern touch I’d been curious about. And man, it’s spot On balanced and perfect! THANK YOU!

  4. Lucy says

    Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe! I brought it with me when we went to the store to buy all the ingredients, and so appreciated all the thoughtful suggestions, and all the hard work that went into the recommendations for each ingredient. I am a new at-home cocktail maker and it has been a real joy to get to make and enjoy my favorite drink at home. It came out perfect. Thank you!

  5. Liore says

    This is a delicious, super easy-to-follow recipe! I always had a hard time making a good Old Fashioned — I could never sweeten it properly. Now I’ve got an easy go-to! Thanks!

  6. Alan says

    This is an excellent rift on an old time classic and my wife’s new favorite cocktail! It has a very nice balance of flavors. It is sweet without being cloying, the orange is present without being overpowering and it’s simple to make with ingredients you probably already have or can find easily. No need to scour the country for oddball ingredients. Thank you for that. Making your own simple syrup out of turbinato sugar is easy and totally worth the effort. The quality of the bourbon is so important. A cheap bourbon will not have the depth of flavor needed for this cocktail. So go ahead and treat yourself. Buy a bottle of top shelf bourbon. I recommend finding a local micro distillery making some craft quality bourbon. This cocktail is faithful to the spirit (pun intended) of the Old Fashion while adding an interesting twist (yes, I know) on standard. If you want a copycat recipe, find a copy of any bartender’s standard guide. That is one of the great things about making your own cocktails. You can make them to your own taste. Professional bartenders all over the country are constantly updating their impressions of standard cocktails to breath new life into them. HOORAY! Times and tastes change. New is not always better. Different is not always good. But sometimes they are. Change is the only constant in the universe. Remember, life is uncertain. Drink the good stuff first.

  7. Tom says

    Sounds like a tasty drink, but it’s one standardized variety of Old Fashioned, which is really not meant to be standardized. You’re messing with a supper club classic. In the 1800s, this was created in Kentucky (always trying to find a ways to drink bourbon there…) but then the Waldorf Astoria picked up on it and you would find this drink in NYC. But it fell from style there before prohibition.

    With the repeal of prohibition, it was resurrected in cold areas… it has largely been from “up north” in the Midwest. We’re talking Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and the rest of the Midwest. It is near inevitable to be asked if you’re from Wisconsin if you order an Old Fashioned elsewhere in the country.

    Sugar, with crystals, is necessary for a real old fashioned. Syrup is sugar, yes. But it’s liquid so it mixes into the drink… Creating a consistent flavor. This is not the intent of the Old Fashioned.

    The point of sugar with crystals is for the person drinking to be able to sweeten the drink as THEY like. You struggled with melting the sugar. This is intentional. The longer it sits, the more it melts, the sweeter it gets. Or, they can mix a little more. You serve it with a standard drink straw that the drinker can use to mix and melt the sugar a bit more. (The straw is not for sipping)

    Originally, it was a couple shakes of bitters on a lump of sugar, then add bourbon. No mixer, no whiskey, no brandy, no ice… Bourbon, with bitters, and sugar mixed to taste.

    Presently, experienced bartenders all over the Midwest will argue over the orange. Peeled, unpeeled, twist, torched vapors… Cherries are not debated. A “great” from scratch Old Fashioned has a muddled cherry or two, as well as one for a garnish.

    “From Scratch” expectation = Muddled fruit

    I learned this way…

    Tumbler, 8 or 10oz. (Big glass, strong drink)
    Two maraschino cherries, two sugar cubes, three dashes of angostura bitters. Peeled orange slice optional.
    Muddle to a paste.
    Add alcohol.
    Add ice. (After alcohol)
    (The glass should not have much room for a mixer.)
    Add splash of mixer as called.

    Don’t shake, don’t stir. Give it to them with the muddle visibly on the bottom. They mix it in how they like.

    Default garnish is your orange/cherry combo.

    • Joshua Smith says

      Tom, it’s ironic you are chastising her for ‘messing’ with the Old Fashioned. As I’m sure you already know, the addition of muddled fruit was a Prohibition addition that helped sweeten the harsh Canadian whiskies smuggled into the US, which led to the Old Fashioned’s syrupy demise for decades.

  8. James West says

    Great write up and article. I did a similar but less extensive test myself years ago and we settled on orange bitters alone. I didn’t try mixing them but will next time.
    Additionally, we settled on Amador for the Bourbon. It has a second aging on wine barrels and adds an amazing depth and flavor to the drink. This is my go to for the perfect old fashioned.

  9. Erika Donaghy says

    This was so fun to read, you really put some time and thought into this! It is also fun to see many of my favorites made your list of the best ingredients.

    • Tom says

      There’s debates over when the fruit originated too! And I don’t really mean to chastise. This drink, probably more than any other, has a long and debated history. But it has always been about the drinkers choice, and granulated sugar is the preferred sweetener to allow the drinker to sweeten as they wish.

      To be technical, go back 200+ years, and this was a solution to make bad whiskey palatable. Whiskey, bitters, sugar. Drink it fast. There’s no ice cubes, so no sense lingering.

      I read a history of cocktails years ago that cited the ready availability of ice as the origin for the modern period of cocktail mixing. That may have been the beginnings of fruit in the old fashioned.