The Old Fashioned isn’t just one cocktail; it’s many. Over the years, it has evolved based on available ingredients and trends. Bartender Steve Schneider breaks it all down for you.
There’s no doubt that the Old Fashioned cocktail has resurfaced in a big way from Grandpa’s drink to mainstream in the blink of an eye — due in large part to the hit show Mad Men. The guys on that show are ballers, and who wouldn’t want to emulate that? As a bartender, I get the call for an Old Fashioned hundreds of times a month. Each time I ask the patron a few simple questions: Would you like rye or bourbon? Would you like it with fruit or without? More often than not, I’m greeted with a blank stare and pure confusion from my guest.
Nobody likes being told how to drink. So, I’m breaking down the options on how this cocktail has been prepared so you can easily order this classic specifically to your liking — and be a baller at the same time.
Rye, no fruit
This is the old, Old Fashioned, the original. Essentially, it’s the definition of a cocktail: Spirit, Sugar, Water and Bitters. Lemon zest is my standard garnish for all versions.
Rye, with fruit
During Prohibition, the quality of rye was not great at all. You had any and every sap making terrible and harsh homemade moonshine; some were even lethal. To combat this, oranges and cherries were added to the Old Fashioned to make it palatable and, well, less lethal. Because rye imparts a dry, fruity taste, the cherries and orange boosts its flavors.
Bourbon, no fruit
Similar to the rye version with the exception that it’s made with the sweeter, fuller-bodied bourbon whiskey.
Bourbon, with fruit
This one is similar to the rye version, but with bourbon. This is the kind most of us were making 10 years ago, because rye whiskey was a rarity and mostly forgotten. The old, pre-Prohibition Old Fashioned had yet to resurface in most places.
For those who are unsure of whether to go with bourbon or rye, a simple way to think about it is that rye is dry (made with at least 51% rye grain) while bourbon is sweeter (at least 51% corn). The best way, however, is to try the Old Fashioned all 4 ways and then decide.
A note about rye whiskey: I will save you the trouble and won’t get too deep into the boring, dorky laws of spirits, but when I say rye I’m referring to American rye whiskey. Canadian Whisky has historically been called “rye” because it’s usually made mostly from rye, but has no official, definitive law for its classification like American rye.
Everything I write about is not set in stone. It’s subjective to my personal experience as a long-time successful bartender. It’s the way I was taught through the interpretations of my mentors’ teachings, coupled with my own practical application and opinions. That’s why I love this business; anything goes if you enjoy your product, and it makes you proud.