The Old Fashioned is one of the easiest cocktails to make—and one of the most difficult to master. But with a little practice and expert advice, you can learn to make a killer Old Fashioned that will impress even the most staunch cocktail nerds. We asked Norton Christopher, beverage director of New Orleans favorite Sac-a-Lait, to give us some advice on how to craft the perfect Old Fashioned at home. Stick to these guidelines the next time you’re craving the classic.
Propper Muddling Protocol
There are still some folks who insist on muddling saccharine maraschino cherries into their Old Fashioned, and to that we say blech. Christopher couldn’t agree more. “I am not opposed to muddling sugar cubes, but I am absolutely against muddling fruit in an Old Fashioned,” he says. “I’m a purist! Heavy pour of chosen whiskey, heavy bitters and light sugar is all you need.”
Simple Syrup vs. Sugar Cube
When making an Old Fashioned, many people add a sugar cube to the bottom of a rocks glass and muddle it with bitters before adding whiskey. But simple syrup also gets the job done, and it’s an ingredient that you’re more likely to have in the house. “I prefer syrups over sugar cubes,” Christopher says. “While I love and appreciate an Old Fashioned made with cubes, they tend to not have full dilution. This means the sugar content can increase over time, and you’re often left with undissolved sugar at the bottom of your glass. I use a double strength demerara syrup because it limits the amount of dilution.”
What About the Whiskey?
“I prefer a nice high rye bourbon,” Christopher says. We agree. It’s the perfect spirit for those who are neither a rye nor bourbon loyalist. But if you’re in the mood for something entirely different, it’s OK to break the rules. “The Old Fashioned is the perfect vessel for any spirit,” he adds. “In addition to whiskey, I have used everything from rum to mezcal.”
The Right Kind of Ice
While you can totally use regular tray ice in a pinch, those small cubes aren’t ideal for an Old Fashioned. “When it comes to ice, you want the drink to chill and dilute, but not over dilute,” Christopher says. “Larger cubes are great for this job because you have the surface area to really provide a nice chill without a quick dilution rate. I love the wide range of molds that are available now. For Old Fashioneds, go for a two-inch cube.”
We already know that muddling fruit into an Old Fashioned is blasphemy. If you want to garnish the cocktail properly, turn to citrus. “I use both an orange and lemon peel,” Christopher says. “When expressed over the cocktail, they really balance it out and brighten it up without muting out the whiskey.” If you want your Old Fashioned to have a deeper, earthier flavor, fire is your friend. “I also flame my citrus over the glass,” he adds. “This contributes an awesome charred depth without adding a smokiness or peatiness like you’ll find in malted whiskeys.”
Making It Your Own Without Ruining It
There’s nothing wrong with making a nouveau version of your favorite classic drink. But the Old Fashioned is pretty perfect in its simplicity, so you’re walking a thin line when you start to alter the recipe. Christopher thinks there’s nothing wrong with a little experimentation, though, so long as the changes aren’t too drastic. “Playing with the bitters and syrups will allow subtle flavor changes while still remaining true to the Old Fashioned,” he says. “Approaching fall, I like to make a nice toasted pecan demerara syrup and pair that with chicory pecan bitters.”