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Old Fashioned: a complete guide to the perfect cocktail

27 October, 2016 — by John Hayward0


In the beginning, before the Negroni and the Long Island Iced Tea, there were six original classic cocktails: Daiquiri, Jack Rose, Manhattan, Martini, Side Car and Old Fashioned.

These are the Olympic gods of mixed drinks. But for now, I’m going to introduce you to the very best of the bunch and what I believe to be the king of cocktails, the Old Fashioned (please imagine a herald of angelic horns as you read that).

The Old Fashioned has once again risen in popularity partly because we’re now drinking more cocktails than ever and partly because it was Don Draper’s weapon of choice in Mad Men. I freely admit to having first tried it after watching one of Don’s booze fuelled sexcapades. If it was good enough to aid Draper marketing his way into a lady’s undercrackers then it was good enough for me.

don draper


The origin of the Old Fashioned is not totally clear but seems to stem from the original 1800’s prototypical cocktails that came back into vogue in the 1860s, hence the name Old Fashioned. The first time the name was used along with bourbon seems to have been around 1881 in the Pendennis Club in Louisville Kentucky.

In his book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury says a cocktail should whet, not dull, the appetite. Thus, it should never be sweet or syrupy, or contain too much fruit juice, egg, or cream. The mighty Old Fashioned fits this description perfectly with its minimalist ingredient list and satisfying subtlety.

How to make the perfect Old Fashioned:


To make this gorgeous tipple you will need: 12 parts bourbon to one part simple syrup and 3-4 dashes of angostura bitters.

In an aptly named Old Fashioned glass, first mix the simple syrup and angostura bitters then add a little bourbon and mix further. Add one golf ball sized ice cube and the rest of the bourbon. Garnish with a slice of orange or lemon and a maraschino cherry. It’s as simple as that. I like to add a splash of the syrup from the Maraschino cherries to mine as well.


The oddly specific ice cube choice is important to the drink. It holds its form long and doesn’t water down the drink as fast. The number of barmen I see adding loads of ice in the initial stages then stirring it for eight minutes to the point where it’s mostly water is frankly outrageous. Mr Embury would have no doubt smashed the place up upon witnessing such an affront, safe in the assumption that he’d be completely justified in doing so.



The garnish appears to be a matter of taste, we prefer orange in our household but that’s the kind of people we are – citrus opinionated. A twist of lemon is the suggested garnish of Embury but he’s been dead since 1960 so he isn’t really in any position to argue unless he does so through a medium. I wouldn’t put it past him. He particularly takes umbrage at people who use sugar rather than simple syrup, it ineffectively dissolves and gives the cocktail a bitty quality.

Quality bourbon:

The use of quality bourbon is also very important as this is where you’ll be getting the majority of the flavour. Don’t opt for Jack Daniels or Jim Beam, they are greatly inferior versions of American whisky. You want a bourbon with a good amount of flavour and a bit of a kick. After a great deal of experimentation I have got it down to three favourites that are not too pricey or hard to get hold of.

Number three on my list is Woodford Reserve. It’s flavourful and very easy to get hold of nowadays. With a little more of a kick it would have taken the number two slot, but that honour goes to our next choice…

Bulleit is our most used home bourbon and works brilliantly in an Old Fashioned. It’s very tasty and warms the palate nicely.

The top spot for the perfect Old Fashioned bourbon goes to Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. It is a fantastic bourbon and totally worth shelling out the extra bucks compared to the other two. Honestly, just try an Old Fashioned made with it, you can thank me later.


There are many variations on the Old Fashioned that basically switch out the bourbon with another spirit. You can use gin, rum, Scotch whisky, even vodka. These are all inferior to the original, of course. When you get something so right it’s best not to mess with the formula.

In this age of drinking responsibly I feel almost guilty pointing you toward this fine elixir as I am certain it will lead you to quaffing glass after glass. There is, however, no classier way to get merry. Take a leaf out of Don’s book, suit up and relax with a true classic.

The Old Fashioned - A beginner's guide to the king of cocktails
The Old Fashioned - A beginner's guide to the king of cocktails
An introduction to the Old Fashioned, One of the classic original cocktails and by far the best. Find out all you need to know about Don Draper's weapon of choice.
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