First are the named, classic variants which typically arise solely from altering the base spirit. A good example would be a Rum Old Fashioned.
Then there are those produced by playing around with any and all of the other ingredients. The House Old Fashioned on many a cocktail bar’s menu falls into this category. And some would argue that the Sazerac also belongs to this group.
Either way, it’s time to go over the core ingredients of the Old Fashioned and how they can be varied.
As previously stated, the Old Fashioned is best thought of as a process. A process for bringing the best out of a quality dark spirit while softening its alcoholic bite. In general, light spirits have an insufficient depth of flavour to benefit from this process. And/or it just doesn’t complement their taste – as is the case for gin.
But any dark spirit may work and be enhanced by the Old Fashioned process. Bourbon is the classic as it is arguably the most suitable and forgiving of dark spirits for cocktails. But rye whiskey, brandy and rum are also winners.
You can even make Old Fashioneds from single malt Scotch or a fine golden sipping tequila. Though in these cases it is a bit more like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. You can make them, and some people will love them. But on balance they’ll never be as popular as the original.
Still, two general rules should be followed when altering the base spirit of an Old Fashioned:
First, you’ll need to alter the quantity of sugar you use depending upon the spirit you choose. A sweeter spirit like rum will need less sugar to achieve the same result. Scotch or Cognac will need a little more.
Second, the Old Fashioned calls for the highest quality of spirit you can manage. While a mid range spirit is fine for most cocktails, here only top shelf will do. The best (classic) Old Fashioned I ever made used Pappy van Winkle 15 y/o Bourbon. I wouldn’t dream of making a Whiskey Sour from that stuff. But I would make a Manhattan from it.
Every Old Fashioned requires a little sugar. Exactly how much is both a matter of personal taste and relative to the sweetness of the spirit used. But either one bar spoon of loose sugar or one sugar cube is the right ballpark.
After some experimentation I settled on using muscovado for my Old Fashioneds. This unrefined cane sugar has several advantages: it dissolves very easily in minimal liquid at room temperature; adds extra character to a drink rather than just sweetness; and is widely available from supermarkets.
But there are lots of interesting and different sugars out there which you could experiment with. I’d avoid icing sugar altogether as it’s unsuitable on too many levels. And it is my opinion that neither white sugar nor sugar syrup has enough character to warrant its use. But that’s your call.
Ordinarily I avoid using granulated sugar or any other type of similar sugar crystals in cocktails. The reason being that they are too much hassle to try to dissolve even at room temperature, let alone once you add ice. So you never know for sure how much has gotten into solution, making the cocktail’s sweetness fearfully difficult to balance. But in this special case you have the time and opportunity to properly dissolve such sugar, so you might want to try it.
The use of bitters is essential for any Old Fashioned. In fact originally it was the inclusion of bitters that made a drink a Cocktail and not a Toddy.
Our standard go-to bitters for an Old Fashioned is the classic Angostura Bitters. Using it is far from being boring or predictable. It is arguably the best suited product for the job, and definitely the most widely available.
Having said that, this is an excellent opportunity to make use of the vast array of other bitters out there. Especially if you have them in your bar or liquor cabinet and don’t know what to do with them.
Peychaud’s Bitters is the second most common and popular bitters worldwide. This is owing to its inclusion in the Sazerac. Either a cousin of the Old Fashioned or merely a complex variant on it, depending on your point of view.
After that there are a number of other bitters brands with interesting and distinctive flavours. Bokers, Le Fee and Bitter Truth are among the most common. All are excellent, and all are prime candidates for experimentation when trying to make your personal signature Old Fashioned.
There are also many flavoured bitters out there of all types. From orange and grapefruit bitters, through chocolate and cherry bitters to peppermint and even whiskey barrel bitters. These are perhaps a little harder to fit into a standard Old Fashioned. But they can be very interesting if you can make them work.
The last major ingredient you could vary is the citrus peel. Orange is pretty much the standard here and works brilliantly with most dark spirits.
Having said that, using lemon, lime or grapefruit zest instead represents another avenue for experimentation. Especially in combination with flavoured bitters. However always be sure to only use the zest and not the pith. It is the essential oils from the zest we’re looking for, not the actual bitterness of the pith.
Finally, there is the potential to add other ingredients to an Old Fashioned. Just remember if you attempt this to stay true to the Old Fashioned’s philosophy. The spirit is the star of the show. Other ingredients can help bring out or accentuate its taste but should never overwhelm it.
A good example of this is using a dash of Absinthe to rinse the glass you are to serve it in. A tiny quantity of this potent stuff can elevate a cocktail into something truly special. See the Sazerac post for more details. Just be careful – the anise taste can easily overwhelm everything else if you use too much.
Old Fashioned Variants
Time for some examples. If you want to try any out yourself, assume that I’m using standard ingredients and method unless otherwise stated.
In my top five favourite cocktails of all time is a Rum Old Fashioned made with the exquisite Ron Diplomatico XO. This is my favourite sipping rum in the world. But a Rum Old Fashioned is just about the only cocktail I could use it for. Anything else would be like defacing a Picasso. Use only two thirds of your usual quantity of sugar to compensate for the rum’s sweetness. All other details remain the same.
Some would argue that the Sazerac itself can be classified as an Old Fashioned variant. Others disagree. Nevertheless, the best Sazerac I ever made was half Remy Martin VSOP Cognac and half Sazerac Rye Whiskey. See the Sazerac post for details.
For a themed event I once made an “Aztec Old Fashioned”. Keeping with the Mesoamerican theme I used Patron Anejo tequila, lime zest and Le Fee Aztec Chocolate bitters. It was interesting, and certainly had potential though I never perfected the concept.
Finally, I once attempted to make a Scotch Old Fashioned using Monkey Shoulder and both grapefruit zest and bitters. Worked quite nicely.