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The Old Fashioned is one of a few common cocktails for me, both when I’m at home and when I’m out. However, when ordering one at a bar, the likelihood of something going mildly to terribly wrong is disturbingly high.

That in mind, I present the Top 10 Ways Bartenders Screw Up My Old Fashioneds, followed by instructions for how to make one properly.

(10) Garnish

This is not a girlie drink. I do not want a garnish with an orange peel and a cherry attached. A plain swizzle stick is fine.

(9) Glassware

An Old Fashioned is served in an old fashioned glass. Why do you think they call it an old fashioned glass? Don’t get cutesy with me. The sides of the glass should be straight, unless your bar has only stupid angled glassware, in which case I’m not sure why I’m there in the first place.

(8) Bitterless

There was an Angostura bitters shortage last year, and I think a number of bartenders never stopped scrimping. 2-3 generous dashes is appropriate. If I can’t taste the bitters, you did something wrong.

(7) Default Liquor

If you are just pouring from the well instead of asking for a liquor preference, you are cheating me out of a chance to tune the drink to my mood. Unlike a vodka drink, an Old Fashioned’s taste changes considerably based on the type and brand of liquor used. Whiskey, rye, and bourbon are all appropriate choices. I tend to choose different ones at different times.

(6) Warmth

This is just bartending 101, but don’t serve me in a glass you just took out of the dishwasher. Bars ought to keep chilled glasses anyway, but if you don’t, then fill one with ice for a bit while you measure the liquor. Then dump and mix.

(5) Fruit failure

The fruit in an Old Fashioned is an integral part of the drink. If you’re just dropping in a cherry and an orange and the end, may God have mercy on your soul. The fruit should be muddled along with the sugar and bitters. And when I say muddled, I mean lightly disturbed, not mashed into a heap.

(4) Sugar packets

The glass should be prepped with Angostura bitters and simple syrup. Any bar that doesn’t have simple syrup pre-prepared and chilled is mismanaged. It’s appropriate to muddle a sugar cube as an alternative. But dumping sugar packets in the mix and hoping for the best? Unforgivable. (Yes, this has really happened to me.)

(3) Cocktail shakers

Why are you putting my Old Fashioned in a cocktail shaker? Are you crazy? This should be a felony.

(2) Pinkification

While getting a bit of juice from the maraschino cherries into the mix is inevitable, there shouldn’t be more than that. By no means should you be using cherry liquid as a shortcut, to substitute simple syrup. If my drink is pink you are my enemy.

(1) Soda water

Yes, I know this was once common practice. But it’s simply wrong. Utterly, completely wrong. If you absolutely insist, give it a splash and only a splash of soda water, and use it to dissolve the sugar cube; do NOT top off the glass with soda water, ever. But really, just don’t.

All that said, here’s how to make an Old Fashioned properly.

1. Start with a chilled old fashioned glass.

It shouldn’t be frosted, it just ought not be room temperature either. If needed, fill with ice and leave sit for a bit while you cut fruit and gather materials. Fill another glass 2/3 with fresh ice for use in the final cocktail. If you make your own ice from a block, fashion a single, large cube that will fit in the glass.

2. Prepare liquor.

Measure out 1.5-2oz of your choice of whiskey, rye, or bourbon (this is a slightly larger measure than standard; if it’s too strong for you, go with a standard shot). An Old Fashioned is mostly liquor, and these sorts of spirits have distinctive tastes, so don’t scrimp. Feel free to try different spirits.

My preference for the drink is Bulleit Bourbon, because it offers a very high rye content and the absence of phenol, which reduces acidity.

Here’s why I measure out the liquor so early: you can take your metal shot measurer and nest it in the glass of ice you set aside. This will lower the temperature of the liquor before you mix it.

3. Add sugar.

If you have prepared, chilled simple syrup, just coat the bottom of the glass. If you’re starting from a sugar cube, drop the cube in the glass, saturate it with 2-3 dashes of Angostura bittres (I sometimes use more; I like the taste). Use your muddler to dissolve the sugar. The optimal consistency is relatively viscous; it should be able to coat the sides of the glass.

What’s that? You say you don’t have a muddler? Unacceptable, go buy one.

4. Prepare fruit.

An Old Fashioned has an orange slice and two maraschino cherries. I prefer to use clementines instead of oranges, partly because they are sweeter and generally tastier, partly because it means I won’t have the rest of a giant orange sitting around, and partly because they are a better size for fitting in the bottom of an old fashioned glass. Because of the smaller size of the clementine, feel free to use two slices. Don’t put the fruit in the glass until the liquor is cold.

5. Coat and muddle.

Rotate the glass to coat the bottom and at least half of the sides. This will spread out the sugar and bitters and help the drink mix itself when you add ice and bourbon. Then drop in the fruit and muddle them. You don’t want to muddle them too much, just enough to break apart the fibrous pith.

6. Ice, pour, and stir.

Add the ice you set aside; go ahead and fill the glass to the brim. Then pour the bourbon or rye over it, and give the works a turn or two with a swizzle stick or a cocktail mixer. If you’re really feeling fancy, drop a lemon twist on top or over the lip of the glass.

And there you have it. Now stop screwing them up.

published August 10, 2010

Comments

  1. Fabio

    Amen to that.

    Reply
  2. abbey

    Don made sure that Sally knew how to muddle properly.

    Reply
  3. Flourish

    I could do this for “negroni” but the biggest problem I have is the bartender saying “uh… what’s a negroni?” It’s an IBA official cocktail, dear sir, and I believe bartending is your line of work – it is literally your job to know how to make this!

    Reply
  4. Ernest Adams

    I had a bad cold. I asked a bartender for a hot toddy. He said, “Wot’s that then?” I explained. He said “Sounds awful” and refused to provide.

    Reply
  5. Ian Bogost

    They’ll let anybody be a bartender these days. Most people just order liquor + mixer I guess. My least favorite one even to hear ordered, let alone to see? Vodka Red Bull.

    Reply
  6. Robert Jackson

    aaaaaah the Vodka Red Bull.

    A pillar of British binge drinking culture since 2001.

    The alcohol in the Vodka makes you sleepy and the Taurine in the Red Bull keeps you awake. Perfect for hedonists.

    Reply
  7. Fabio

    Agreed. I worked as a bartender and to work in vodkaredbull popular places feels really degrading. As far as I am concerned the only really respectable liquor+mixer is a good old Gin&Tonic.

    Reply
  8. Aaron Lanterman

    Vodka Red Bull… good grief! It sounds like speedballing.

    Reply
  9. Jamey Stevenson

    In all fairness, the Old Fashioned is a really easy drink to screw up – and honestly, isn’t half the pleasure of ordering it the fact that it affords one the opportunity to be disdainful when it isn’t perfect?

    I was in a play in high school in the role of a bartender, and I had to fix one of these onstage every night. I can remember the first time we had a table reading of the script, the director asked me if I knew what the significance was of this other character ordering an Old Fashioned. When I said I didn’t, he explained that this was shorthand for that character being insufferable (no offense intended, that was naturally only his own interpretation).

    But yeah, this post is hilarious to me as it reads like a litany of all the grievous sins I undoubtedly committed while playing this role. As somebody who doesn’t drink, I couldn’t have been any more clueless about the laborious preparation ritual involved. If only I had your helpful guide back then, Ian, my suffering could have been averted.

    Reply
  10. Skwerl

    Maybe get behind a bar some time. they aren’t screwing it up, you aren’t ordering correctly. I’m a bartender and if some pretentious douche walks up and says, “old fashioned,” depending on the circumstances, i’m not about to spend 30 minutes asking every little detail. However, I aim to please and would be more than inclined to listen if you were to say something along the lines of, “I’ll take an old fashioned with….”

    Dealing with customers is a lot more difficult and unrewarding than you are apparently aware of. At my bar, which is probably the only one in the county that would even know what an old fashioned is, we use brandy instead of bourbon. would that be me screwing up your drink if you didnt say, “old fashioned with elijah craig 12?”

    Reply
  11. Ian Bogost

    Hey Skwerl, you know what’s even worse? Dealing with anonymous douches on the Internet.

    I’m happy to order my old fashioned with my selection of spirits specified. The brandy old fashioned is mostly a regional thing. I’m guessing you’re in the upper midwest.

    Reply
  12. Andrew

    Wow Ian, interesting to see where you chose to go with your rebuttal. Perhaps Jamey’s play director was on to something.

    Reply
  13. Cocktail Curmudgeons

    Flawed. There is to be no muddled fruit in the old fashioned. This technique stems from the use of bad whiskey during prohabition. Fruit was used to hide the taste. An old fashioned made with a quality rye or bourbon, needs no fruit. A piece of orange, or lemon peel, for the oils is acceptable.

    Check out the Cocktail Curmudgeons page on Facebook for more info.

    Reply
  14. Ian Bogost

    I’ve come around to Cocktail Curmudgeon’s position. In fact, these days I mostly just drink bourbon with bitters.

    Reply
  15. Jeffrey

    I was going to offer the same sentiment as Cocktail Curmudgeons, but I am glad to see you’ve come to see the light. Good post.

    Reply
  16. Brad

    A few things. If simple sugar or sugar cubes are unavailable, a bar spoon of white sugar is acceptable. Second, after muddling the sugar and bitters, immediately add ice and then bourbon or whiskey. Third, a splash of club soda is part of an old fashioned. Fourth, garnish should be an orange slice and cherry. Lastly, bartenders should at no time stir the drink. That is up to the customer if they would like to mix the soda into the alcohol, or leave it on top for the end.

    Reply
  17. Kyle

    Muddled fruit has no place in an Old Fashioned!!!!!

    Reply
  18. Ian Bogost

    As I mentioned above, I too have come around to this belief. However, temperence: all manner of old fashioneds can be enjoyed under the right circumstances.

    Reply
  19. an actual bartender

    Immediately upon receiving the order for an old fashioned, the bartender should ask if the patron has any preference.

    Garnish of a single orange twist should be prepared now. You can add two cherries after the drink is complete, but you really shouldn’t.

    A sugar cube and 2-3 dashes of aromatic bitters is the standard and adds to the ritual of a proper old fashioned. Simple syrup has no place here. Orange bitters, barrel whiskey bitters or Peychaud’s to preference.

    After muddling, the first half ounce (15mL) and some large ice, then stir. Repeat for each measure, break the orange twist (never involve a lighter) over the glass, rim and drop.

    Serve the best damn cocktail your patron has ever had. Collect your tip.

    Reply
  20. Neil

    My brother just introduced me to Old Fashions. Enjoyed the thread!

    Hey, what would you use instead of a nonbiodegradable maraschino cherry?

    Reply
  21. Luke

    You are aware that a proper Old Fashioned never has, and never will have fruit in it?? Let alone muddled fruit! That is a modern twist on the original.

    I also assume that you are aware that the drink should take well over 10 minutes to make when made properly? I presume you know why? No?? Well I shall enlighten you…

    The first stage should involve placing (traditionally) a sugar cube in the bottom of the glass and soaking it with bitters (3 dashed should do). The ice cube is then crushed, usually with the back of a barspoon and (there is some debate over this) one measure of the alcohol of choice is poured into the glass and one single ice cube is dropped in. The drink is then stirred continuously until the ice cube has completely melted. Stage 1 completed…

    Stage 2 involves adding the 2nd measure of alcohol into the glass, and another ice cube. If you are drinking a variant of the Old Fashioned, this is where orange peel should be added and perhaps a barspoon of maraschino – NEVER an actual cherry though. Again, the drink should be stirred until this ice cube has also melted and, if orange peel is present, this should be GENTLY muddled with the base of the barspoon.

    Once the 2nd ice cube has completely melted, your drink is nearly ready. Just add a few cubes of ice if desired and serve without a garnish.

    So… Your ideas for chilling the spirit seems a bit pointless, given that you should be chilling the drink continuously for about 10 minutes while stirring it.

    It’s all very clever, complaining about how people make your Old Fashioned and I’m sure it actually gives you great pleasure to receive one that doesn’t meet your exacting, although incorrect, standards. However, it might be worth considering that there are literally countless slight variations on an Old Fashioned and many bartenders believe that you can tell everything you need to know about a bartender from his/her Old Fashioned. If they were all the same, what would be the point???

    Reply
  22. Luke

    Wow!! Multiple posts! My apologies.

    Also, stage 1 should read “The SUGAR cube is then crushed”.

    Reply
  23. Anonymous

    An old fashioned Old Fashioned doesn’t require fruit. You’re drinking a cocktail, not eating a fruit salad. If anything, it may have a lemon peel for garnish, even an orange peel, but not a half slice of orange nor a cherry. I love Don Draper, but unfortunately the writers of Mad Men gave him the wrong recipe. An Old Fashioned among whiskey drinkers is a cocktail where not everyone can agree on how its done.

    Reply
  24. Ashley Bernard

    So I started doing research on the old fashioned because everyone likes to tell me their way (quite annoying). All of the wikipedia answers never called for an orange or cherry, but every one I have ever been asked to make this for has required it, whether it was the restaurants recipe or the bar patron ordering. The name “old fashioned” came because a lot of cocktails came out and when you wanted bourbon, sugar, bitters, and water you ordered a cocktail “the old fashioned way”. It does make sense that they would use a cherry and an orange to cover low quality liquor. Also if you’re using orange you should take the peal off completely because the pith is bitter. I’ll garnish the drink with a thin layer of the oranges skin and squeeze it over the cocktail to get the oil over it. The only reason you use water is to dissolve a sugar cube. If there is no sugar cube the ice you use will melt and be a the water part. Soda water is not part of an old fashion… it’s another preference you should never assume people want this, 99.9% do not.

    Reply
  25. Ashley Bernard

    So I started doing research on the old fashioned because everyone likes to tell me their way (quite annoying). All of the wikipedia answers never called for an orange or cherry, but every one I have ever been asked to make this for has required it, whether it was the restaurants recipe or the bar patron ordering. The name “old fashioned” came because a lot of cocktails came out and when you wanted bourbon, sugar, bitters, and water you ordered a cocktail “the old fashioned way”. It does make sense that they would use a cherry and an orange to cover low quality liquor. Also if you’re using orange you should take the peal off completely because the pith is bitter. I’ll garnish the drink with a thin layer of the oranges skin and squeeze it over the cocktail to get the oil over it. The only reason you use water is to dissolve a sugar cube. If there is no sugar cube the ice you use will melt and be a the water part. Soda water is not part of an old fashion… it’s another preference you should never assume people want this, 99.9% do not.

    Reply

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