Upgrade Your Old Fashioned With These Bartender Tips

The Old Fashioned is the most iconic classic cocktail of our time. With just three ingredients and an orange twist for garnish, it’s also one of the easiest cocktails to make—or so you would think. Its simplicity leaves no room to hide mistakes, but it also allows plenty of room for experimentation. We asked 14 bartenders to reveal their secrets on how to improve the classic recipe. Here, their nine best pieces of Old Fashioned advice.

Use High-Proof Whiskey...

“I prefer using a higher proof rye whiskey instead of a bourbon as I think it holds up better when mixing it the way we do. Words to the wise: Do not muddle a bleached red cherry and an orange slice with sugar in the glass or add soda. This is a method evolved over time out of convenience and having new toys to play with, but it ultimately devolved the cocktail into an imbalanced mess.” —Dan Rook, Ever Bar (opening summer 2017)

...Or Forget the Whiskey

“Make it with a rum, possibly Mount Gay XO. Also, I like to add a bit of chocolate flavor into it, so the recipe would be: 1.5 ounces rum, 1 barspoon dark crème de cacao, 2 dashes orange bitters and 1 dash Mozart chocolate bitters.” —Eva Kovacikova, Zuma

"I like to use muddled sugar cubes, heavily dosed with Angostura bitters, orange discs with a touch of flesh, and then sneer at the whiskey while I grab a nice bottle of aged rum to feed the mix." —Joshua Fryer, 8ARM

“Use whatever spirit you want really—whiskey, rum, etc. Then twist a spiral or large swath of lemon, but use lime if you’re using rum, and use grapefruit if you’re using tequila or mezcal. Then swirl. The Old Fashioned gets better as it sits.” —Abigail Gullo, Compere Lapin

Give It Fire Power

“We use a crème brulee torch on a maple plank for a few seconds and allow it to smoke. Then we take a highball glass—coated with Texas whiskey—and turn it upside down over the smoldering plank. The maple smoke clings to the whiskey-coated glass, and it makes for a great presentation and one heck of a cocktail.” —Justyn Blevins, IVY Kitchen

Experiment With Sweeteners and Bitters

“Using a floral honey in an Old Fashioned gives it a unique sweet flavor. But if you’re opting for muddling sugar, definitely use turbinado instead of white sugar.” —Tara Rizzi, Trinity

"To us, the key to a perfect Old Fashioned is quality ingredients. We prefer Woodford Reserve bourbon and only use high-quality Luxardo cherries. For our own twist, we use a housemade vanilla lavender syrup." —Josh Williams, Savannah Cocktail Co.

"In a classic sense, experimenting with different sugars, (sugar in the raw, brown sugar, etc.) can add different layers of complexity. My favorite is gomme syrup, which adds a beautiful silkiness to an Old Fashioned. At Sweet Auburn, we also do a twist on the Old Fashioned by smoking the glass and using maple syrup for sweetener. We also swap the traditional bitters for black walnut and creole bitters, which creates a rich, nutty Old Fashioned that nods towards scotch." —Blake Carter, Sweet Auburn Barbecue

Simplicity Is Key

“When making an Old Fashioned, the best advice I can give is that less is more because it’s a very simple drink. Far too often, I see bartenders adding copious amounts of bitters and half an ounce or more of sugar into the beverage. Two dashes of bitters is all that’s required to add a touch of spice and balance out the sugar, and I also keep it simple by using the industry standard, Angostura. To balance out the bitters, it only takes one bar spoon of a simple syrup that is equal parts sugar to water or one sugar cube soaked in the two dashes of bitters that’s then muddled to balance out the iconic beverage. Finish it with an orange peel, and no matter what whiskey you use, the drink will be delicious.” —Jon Howard, Henley

Use Big Ice

“We build the drink in a mixing glass and serve it over one large ice cube. The large ice is important because it will hold the drink at temperature without over-diluting it. We garnish with a lemon and orange twist, making sure to express the oil of each over the top of the cocktail.” —Brad Nugent, Center Bar

Stick to the Classic Formula

“The secret to making the perfect Old Fashioned is to start with a great whiskey, great bitters and simple syrup instead of sugar for a better mouthfeel. Finally, stir—never shake—the cocktail and top with a Luxardo cherry.” —Sean Bennett, Waller Creek Pub House

"Over the years, the Old Fashioned has been transformed into a chunky soda pop with low-quality ingredients and very little booze. Stick to the basics and the classic recipe: whiskey—preferably rye or bourbon, but branch out if willing—bitters and sugar. Add a rind of citrus, switch your bitters to something unique, or try brown sugar or a dark agave instead of white sugar. Just don't get too playful with adjuncts. Once you do, you've created a cocktail that may be good, but it needs a different name." —Ryan Kelimoff, Cafe Americano

But Always Keep an Open Mind

“In New Orleans, most of our guests order an Old Fashioned and want it made by muddling a slice of orange, cherry and Angostura bitters. I always use the muddler to press down on the fruit to extract a bit of juice along with the oils from the peel. I use Luxardo cherries for their incredible taste to complement the cocktail. You can use demerara sugar, a sugar cube, or simple syrup made with raw or brown sugar. I always smile when a guest orders an Old Fashioned with brandy because it gives me a hint that they are from the Midwest, as it’s a common request from that area of the country. The best trick of the trade? Read your guest, ask questions and then make accordingly with a smile.” —Lu Brow, DTB

Always Be Prepared

“I always carry a little baggie with minis of Angostura aromatic bitters and a few sugar cubes (or I'll grab a couple extra raw sugar packets at the coffee shop) so anytime there's whiskey, I can make myself an Old Fashioned. If I'm at the airport, I'll buy an orange before boarding—that way, I can also add a twist.” —Han Shan, Hudson Whiskey National Ambassador