How to Make an Old Fashioned Cocktail

Maybe my “southern” card will be revoked due to my honesty…but….shhhhh….I don’t really like whiskey all that much. I prefer sweeter drinks like a spiked Arnold Palmer or I like my Bourbon mixed with mint like in a julep. However, if you are in the south you really need to try an old-fashioned cocktail at least once. It is pretty much the epitome of dark wood clad bars with wealthy old gentlemen sitting around in leather chairs smoking cigars and drinking.

What is an Old Fashioned Cocktail

A traditional Old Fashioned is a cocktail made with sugar, bitters, water, and whiskey over ice. As with everything, you will find variations on the original.

two drinks in etched short glasses with orange and lemons slices in them and oranges and cherries blurred in the background. Recipe for an Old Fashioned Cocktail

A Quick History of the Old Fashioned and perhaps How the Old Fashioned Got its Name

If you have studied many cocktails you will discover that there are only a few that have a clear ancestry.

This is not one of them.

One story is that it was invented in a private social club called The Pendenniss Club in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880. James E. Pepper was the bartender there who invented the drink before transporting it to his new job at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.

Some say that it started back in the early 1800’s when a beverage called a whiskey cocktail was popular for its medicinal properties. The whiskey cocktail started as a simple mixture of sugar, bitters, and whiskey. But as chefs and bartenders are wont to do they started messing with the recipe. They experimented with different ingredients and proportions until people started asking for a whiskey cocktail the “Old Fashioned” way.

Both sound reasonable to me and the truth could be a combination of the two.

What are “bitters?”

Bitters have been around for a long, long time and were originally used as a type of medicine.

Basically they are spirits, usually high proof and with a neutral flavor, which have been infused with any number of botanicals. Basically they are strong alcohol infused with some type of plant or mix of plants. This might be things like roots, barks, and peels. In the way back past these were basically tonics for any number of ailments.

In the somewhat more recent past, like in 1824, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert created a type of bitters named after the town of Angostura, Venezuela. The purpose was to deliver digestive relief and a stimulant to the Venezuelan army. In 1830, the House of Angostura was created. This is a bitters company dedicated to producing his recipe and Angostura is the type of bitters you will find most often recommended to make an old fashioned cocktail. You can order Angostura Bitters or find them at most liquor stores.

You can even make your own bitters today. Check out Sean Brock’s Heritage cookbook which I have written about on my post about the best southern cookbooks for some ideas.

Bitters aren’t always bitter, but the taste is typically strong and sharp. Therefore, bitters aren’t meant to be used alone. Their purpose these days is to balance out or add an interesting flavor to a cocktail.

And What about the Whiskey?

Nope. I’m not going to go here! Opinions on whiskey are as strong and varied as the whiskey itself and I am definitely no expert. As I mentioned above whiskey is not my favorite so I can’t really speak to the various types!

We have a distillery here in Little Rock called Rock Town that has won numerous awards for their whiskey and I buy mine there. It makes me feel good about supporting a local business.

Just use your favorite. Use something that you would sip on its own if it weren’t in a cocktail.

I will mention that our son who does enjoy whiskey says that in his opinion an old fashioned tastes better made with a “hot” whiskey. This means a slightly higher proof whiskey.

And the Ice in an Old Fashioned?

You need ice because not only is this a chilled drink, but as the ice melts the whiskey becomes smoother and less sharp tasting. However, you don’t want the ice to melt too quickly because this is a drink for sipping and you don’t want it to become watered down too quickly.

Therefore it is best to use large pieces of ice that will melt slowly. To make our old fashioned we used these ice molds that make large round balls of ice. They worked wonderfully! I also think that this diamond shaped ice would be fun.

What is an Old Fashioned glass

Basically you are just looking for a short tumbler.

Honestly, my orange juice glasses work well for an Old Fashioned. However, we wanted to feel a little more fancy as we sipped ours so we picked up some inexpensive glasses specifically for this drink. You might want to choose some etched glasses that have an old world look, or some with a more modern feel, or just stick with plain and simple and timeless.

The Traditional Way to Make an Old Fashioned Cocktail

This is about as simple of a cocktail as you can make. Nothing fussy or time consuming here. It is a mix of sugar, bitters, water and whiskey. That’s it.

I am going to tell you how the original was made and then give you some variations that you can try.

Here you go:

Recipe for a traditional Old Fashioned Cocktail


  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 or 3 dashes of bitters
  • 1/2 tsp water
  • 2 ounces whiskey
  • Large piece of ice
  • orange peel


  • Drop a sugar cube in your old fashioned glass
  • Add two or three dashes of Angostura Bitters over the top of the cube
  • Add the 1/2 teaspoonful of water
  • Muddle the sugar and bitters and water until the sugar is melted
  • Add ice to your glass
  • Add the whiskey
  • Stir until the whiskey is chilled
  • Twist the orange peel to release the oils and place in the glass.
  • Sip!

Can’t get much easier than that? Right?

Variations on a Traditional Old Fashioned Cocktail

Here are a few variations that some people like. Purists will shudder at the thought of changing the traditional way of making an old fashioned cocktail, but really its all about making it taste good to YOU!

Garnishes: You will see oranges, lemons, and maraschino cherries all mentioned. We used all three! You just cut a slice of peel from an orange or a lemon or both, twist so that the oils are released and drop in the drink. Orange is the most traditional garnish.

We tried the Old Fashioned with the cherry and thought that the flavor really went nicely with the whiskey and bitters. I am not typically a big fan of maraschino cherries but it worked here. If I had thought about it in advance I would have splurged on some Luxardo Gourmet Cherries. They are expensive but delicious.

When you use a twist of both orange and lemon peel in your glass it is called rabbit ears.

Sugar and Sweetening your Old Fashioned: A sugar cube is the most traditional but they aren’t always easy to find. You might decide to use simple syrup. If you choose to go this simpler route you won’t need the extra spoonful of water.

One of my very favorite healthy food bloggers, Cookie and Kate, suggests using a bit of maple syrup as the sweetener. She says that the flavor really compliments the whiskey. I think a touch of honey might work as well. If you try either of these let me know what you think.

You could also decide to go with a brown sugar sugar cube as your sweetener. I think this would be a lovely flavor addition.

Club Sode: You will often see a splash of club soda added to an old fashioned in place of the water.

Various Bitters: You can also try different flavors of bitters. Many people like orange bitters.

Try a different type of alcohol: Yes, this is typically a whiskey drink but brandy is also used on occasion. You could also try it with a dark aged rum or even gin.

Hope you enjoy figuring out how to make the perfect Old Fashioned Cocktail for you! Check out the rest of the drinks in our Southern Cocktail Series!

two drinks in etched short glasses with orange and lemons slices in them and oranges and cherries blurred in the background. Recipe for an Old Fashioned Cocktail

Thanks for stopping by!