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The best whiskies for an Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned is a stone cold classic, but what are the best bourbon and rye whiskies to use when making this 200-year-old cocktail? Spirits expert Laura Foster looks at the history of the drink and selects eight top whiskies to try...

A serious stirred-down whiskey drink, the Old Fashioned’s roots hail back over 200 years, to the first published definition of a ‘cocktail’ in the snappily titled The Balance and Colombian Repository in 1806.

The definition of a cocktail outlined ‘spirits of any kind, bitters, sugar and water’, and so an Old Fashioned actually started life known as a Whiskey Cocktail.

Scroll down to see Laura Foster’s best whiskies to try in an Old Fashioned

As the decades rolled by, the methods of making the Whiskey Cocktail became sloppy, leading to connoisseurs requesting their Whiskey Cocktails be made ‘the old-fashioned way’.

While the exact origins of the Old Fashioned as a drink in its own right have been lost to the mists of time, the first published mention was in Theodore Proulx’s Bartenders’ Manual in 1888.

It enjoyed a renaissance in the noughties and 2010s thanks in part to the popularity of tv show Mad Men – protagonist Don Draper was partial to this alluring classic cocktail. Add to this that it was the drink of choice of bartenders at the time, with their preferences influencing the ordering habits of the customers they served, and the Old Fashioned took off once more.

How to make an Old Fashioned

A revered drink, many assume that making an Old Fashioned is difficult and time-consuming, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. First, choose the best whiskey; a quality American whiskey – bourbon or rye – is required. This is a serious cocktail where the spirit stands front and centre, with no bells and whistles to distract from its flavour.

Sugar is required. In the past bartenders would most likely have used loaf sugar, nowdays a sugar cube is often used, although some do make use of a pre-made sugar syrup.

If not using a syrup, the sugar cube needs to be diluted, and the best way to do this is to soak it in a couple of dashes of bitters, add a dash of water and muddle or stir them.

The traditional bitters used in an Old Fashioned no longer exist, and today’s go-to brand is Angostura, a safe option that produces a solid drink. For those wanting to explore the history of the cocktail further, Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s Bitters recreates one of the classic bitters that were used.

For those interested in experimenting further, changing the bitters can produce interesting yet subtle variations in flavour.

There has been much misconception over the use of fruit in an Old Fashioned over the decades. Cocktail purists would baulk at the idea of muddling fruit in it – steer clear and simply add an orange twist.

Best whiskey for an Old Fashioned: Eight to try

Balcones Baby Blue

Texan distillery Balcones has always done things left of centre, and its Baby Blue whiskey is an excellent example of this. Made with heirloom blue corn, which was originally developed by the Native American Hopi tribe, Balcones Baby Blue is unctuous, buttery and nutty, with flavours of tropical fruit, wholemeal bread, cinnamon and smoked paprika. Alc 46%

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Buffalo Trace Distillery produces some of the most revered whiskey brands in the world: Pappy Van Winkle, Eagle Rare and Sazerac Rye are just a few that are made here. The eponymous bourbon has aromas of toffee, profiteroles and cinnamon that lead onto a palate of more toffee, coffee, apple and dried fruit. Alc 40%

Four Roses Small Batch

Bourbon is made with a combination of different grains – called the ‘mash bill’ – with corn comprising at least 51% of the recipe. Four Roses uses five yeasts and two mash bills to produce 10 different bourbon recipes that are then used in its products. The small batch is a combination of four of these bourbons, producing a rich whiskey with notes of raspberry, strawberry, caramel and cinnamon. Alc 45% 

High West Rendezvous Rye

Based in Utah, High West is the world’s only ski-in, ski-out distillery. Rendezvous is a blend of rye whiskeys that are aged between four and seven years. It’s a full-bodied, spicy whiskey, with notes of buttered bread, cherry, apricot, anise, cinnamon and vanilla with peppery spice, all overlaid with a pleasing florality. Alc 46%

Maker’s 46

From the producers of Makers Mark, 46 is made the same way as the original bourbon, with the exception of the ageing process, which sees the whiskey finished in barrels that have extra European oak staves added. It’s a big, spicy whiskey with vanilla, fudge and tropical fruits, before a smoky barbecue dry-rub character comes in, with paprika, chilli and peach. Alc 47%

Michter’s US 1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Michter’s has a long and storied history that starts in 1753 and involves two name changes, numerous different owners and a 23-year break in production. The Straight Bourbon is made in small batches of 20 barrels, and boasts a rich palate of vanilla fudge, caramel, dried fruits and black pepper spice. Alc 45.7%

Wild Turkey 101

Made by father-son duo Jimmy and Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey has seen Jimmy at the helm of its distillery for over 60 years. Wild Turkey’s portfolio of whiskeys is revered by bourbon lovers, and this high-abv product is one for those who enjoy a boozy kick in their Old Fashioned. Butterscotch, vanilla, wholemeal bread, winter spices and toasted nuts make for a heady cocktail. Alc 50.5%

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Bourbon whiskey is made from a combination of different grains. Woodford Reserve’s recipe comprises 18% rye, a relatively high amount for bourbon, which will provide chocolatey, spicy notes in the whiskey. The rye’s influence is found here, with cocoa, cinnamon and tobacco spice accompanied by orange peel, ginger and vanilla. Alc 45.2% 

Originally published in December 2020 and updated in May 2021.

See also

A world of whisky: Understanding whisky styles

Best whisky gifts: The bottles to buy

New-wave Scotch distilleries – plus five bottles to try

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