Prohibition-era cocktails have experienced a remarkable renaissance in recent years, but there’s one such beverage that’s managed to maintain its relevance and popularity all throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and that’s the Old Fashioned. Don Draper’s signature drink passes the test of time because of its elegant simplicity. A classic Old Fashioned requires only whiskey (traditionally bourbon), Angostura bitters, Demerara sugar, and a twist of orange.
That said, the minimalist formula of an Old Fashioned makes it a prime candidate for experimentation, and enterprising bartenders don’t hesitate to try replacing the whiskey with other spirits, thus creating intriguing twists on the classic. Keeping the flexibility of the Old Fashioned recipe in mind, we asked 10 bartenders for their top Old Fashioned spirits recommendations, and they provided a wide range of suggestions to suit every preference and palate.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
Bourbon’s status as the long-established spirit choice for Old Fashioneds comes from its unique flavor profile; its toasted wood notes and subtle sweetness play very nicely with Demerara sugar and Angostura bitters. Co-owner and head mixologist Stefan Huebner of Dot Dot Dot in Charlotte, North Carolina particularly favors Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon for Old Fashioneds, telling us that “at 94 proof, it has enough heat to stand up to the sugar and bitters in an Old Fashioned. The high amount of corn in its mashbill lends to a sweetness and complexity that I really enjoy. The fact that it is readily available and really reasonably priced is a major bonus. The consistency in the bourbon leads to consistency in the cocktail.”
Four Roses Bourbon
When making a cocktail like an Old Fashioned, which features ingredients with strong personalities, a high-priced bottle of rare whiskey doesn’t necessarily feel like a worthwhile expense. Instead, beverage director Laura Ganci of Courtland Club in Providence, Rhode Island urges you to select a reliable, gently priced workhorse bourbon like Four Roses. “Four Roses has been my go to for an Old Fashioned for many years because of its accessibility. Its smooth flavor and fall fruit notes are easily balanced with a small amount of sugar and bitters and some expressed orange oil. I never really understand when people go for a top-shelf spirit in an Old Fashioned. The drink was designed to dress up imperfections. Save the single-barrel bourbons for a neat pour, or open them up with a cube of ice. The Four Roses flagship blend, though just fine on its own, does very well in this classic cocktail,” explains Ganci.
Wyoming Whiskey Outryder
Wyoming Whiskey describes its “Outryder” expression as “a straight American whiskey with higher rye content than our bourbon, but short of a true rye whiskey.” The notable presence of rye in this spirit provides it with a boldness that works beautifully in the context of an Old Fashioned, according to wine and beverage director Neil Loomis of Fine Dining Restaurant Group in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. ““I like using rye whiskey in my Old Fashioneds because rye has a natural spicy character that melds well with the slight fruitiness and sweetness of the cocktail. My go-to is Wyoming Whiskey Outryder. At almost 50% rye, the notes of clove, allspice, and orange blossom honey make for the perfect Old Fashioned,” says Loomis.
Casa Noble Añejo
The use of agave spirits in Old Fashioneds counts among the most popular variations on this cocktail staple, and it’s hardly surprising that dark, aged tequilas like reposados and añejos make especially fitting substitutes for whiskey. “I enjoy aged tequila in an Old Fashioned. Casa Noble Añejo works particularly well, as it’s aged 2 years in French oak, which gives it many of the tasting notes and aromas we love in bourbon, such as caramel, vanilla, and baking spices. Even so, the agave flavors are still present, which adds complexity to the drink,” Nashville, Tennessee-based bar director Patricia Grimm of The 404 Kitchen tells us of her preferred Old Fashioned spirit base.
Mezcal Vago Elote
Smoky, assertive mezcal always makes its presence known when added to cocktails, and a simple libation like the Old Fashioned gives this spirit the opportunity to truly shine. Owner River Hawkins of The Milkman’s Bar in Charlottesville, Virginia recommends Mezcal Vago Elote for Old Fashioned-making purposes, citing this mezcal’s inclusion of roasted corn as a top-selling point. “[Mezcal Vago] Elote is rolled with roasted corn between the second and third distillations, giving it a robust corn sweetness. That, mingled with the rich minerality of a good Espadin smoked to perfection in underground earthen ovens, adds a complexity to Old Fashioneds [that] I believe is better than the original rye or bourbon base. The Vago Elote corn sweetness is almost an homage to good moonshine whiskey, but with so much more to offer because it’s a mezcal,” Hawkins insists.
Rhum Barbancourt 15
Hailing from the island nation of Haiti, Rhum Barbancourt is famous for its distillation style; unlike most rums, this “rhum” (like rhum agricole from Martinique) is made from sugarcane juice rather than from molasses. Bar manager Christian Favier of The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina believes that the unique botanical notes of this spirit (especially the 15-year version) are ideal for an Old Fashioned: “I love a good rye or bourbon Old Fashioned as much as the next guy, but as a rum head and lover of all things Caribbean, my go-to Old Fashioned is made with Rhum Barbancourt 15. A beautiful rhum made in the style of classic French spirits on the island of Haiti, Barbancourt 15 has the perfect mix of funk, woody tannin, and concentration of beautiful sugarcane flavor. When you add a few dashes of bitters and cane syrup, it becomes a truly perfect drink.”
Abelha Organic Cachaça Ouro
A South American sugarcane spirit with origins dating back to the 16th century, cachaça’s similarities to rhum agricole earn it the nickname of “Brazilian rum.” The unaged (“white” or “silver”) version of cachaça is a popular cocktail ingredient (most notably, it’s the liquor used in caipirinhas), but aged (“gold”) cachaça boasts a depth of flavor that renders it a spirit largely enjoyed neat or on the rocks. However, like whiskey, this brown liquor can easily fit into a mixed drink, especially one designed for darker spirits, like the Old Fashioned. “When you’re looking to do something a little different than a classic Old Fashioned, Abelha Organic Cachaça Gold is a great alternative or substitute for bourbon. This aged cachaça is designed as a sipping spirit and the wood it’s aged in, Garapeira, imparts unique characteristics, which make it stand up very well in classic stirred cocktails. The Old-Fashioned is a truly historic cocktail and was created by a famous mixologist – for me, it’s the best way to valorize a great product: With few ingredients and simple technique,” says bartender Giaime Mauri of Epistrophy in New York, New York.
Bols Genever Barrel-Aged
Genever, popularly considered the precursor to gin, doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for an Old Fashioned. If that opinion sounds familiar to you, then take a look at this history lesson (and spirits suggestion) from Anthony Caporale, the Director of Spirits Education at the Institute of Culinary Education:
“The Old Fashioned is a style, not a recipe, and it refers to drinking spirits the way we did before Prohibition — the old-fashioned way. This meant just adding sweetener and a couple dashes of cocktails bitters for balance. I don’t think most people realize that our most iconic drink, the martini, started as a variation on an Old Fashioned, and it was originally made with cask-aged Old Tom gin. Building on that theme, I like to make Old Fashioneds with barrel-aged genever. For my Old Fashioned of choice, I like to use Bols Genever Barrel‑Aged. This genever has a lot in common with whiskey and makes an ideal base for an Old Fashioned. In addition to being aged in oak casks for 18 months, it’s distilled from rye, wheat, and corn in copper pot stills. Unique botanicals like hops and cloves complements the namesake juniper as well as the malt wine base. Try varying your choice of bitters to see which you prefer with the 19th-century Lucas Bols recipe.”
Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac
Redolent of baking spices and dried fruits, Cognac has a flavor profile very conducive to holiday-season drinking, and using it in an Old Fashioned gives that cocktail a timely cool-weather update. Proprietor H. Joseph Ehrmann of Elixir in San Francisco, California selects Pierre Ferrand Ambre Cognac for his Old Fashioneds because “this is a Cognac that is both incredibly complex and thoroughly delicious on its own, [yet] it is still in the price range to not scare anyone from making a cocktail with it. Without an age designation, it qualifies as an XO with 10 years in Tronçais oak barrels, which differ from American oak [barrels] and what they do to bourbon. I like to use light brown sugar and a mix of chocolate and orange bitters to highlight those characteristics in the spirit.”
Singani 63 Brandy
The unaged Bolivian brandy known as Singani 63 bears many similarities to pisco (another South American unaged brandy), thanks to its bright notes of flowers and fruits and its delicate sweetness. Beverage director Rael Petit of Kokomo in Brooklyn, New York eschews brown spirits in his Old Fashioneds in favor of Singani 63, stating that “Singani 63 is an extremely versatile spirit. The effervescent scent of orange blossom perfectly balances out the touch of sweetener from the Old Fashioned cocktail.”
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