Smells Like Whiskey Spirit: How-to Make the Best Old Fashioned

old fashioned cocktail

The Old-Fashioned cocktail is the Smells Like Teen Spirit of the cocktail world.   Like the celebrated Nirvana song, the Old Fashioned is a relatively easy cocktail to execute, but its beauty lies in its simplicity and the level of precision and keenness the bartender brings to the table.  

A group of 13-year-old kids can get up on stage at a local talent show with junk instruments and play Smells Like Teen Spirit fairly effortlessly and make it sound decent.  You admire their youthful vigor while you nod your head to the amateurish, but faithful rendition. 

I compare this to a novice bartender throwing together a simple Old Fashioned with low shelf ingredients and whiskey.  The Old Fashioned will turn out pleasantly drinkable and the cocktail will prop up the poor whiskey of choice. Every sip will be enjoyable, but you might not understand the hyperbole surrounding such a famed cocktail.  The excellence of the Old Fashioned might be lost on you.

Now, take a group of trained, passionate musicians and give them quality instruments with some massive amplifier stacks, put them in a room with beautiful acoustics, and they are going to make Smells Like Teen Spirit sound like it should; arguably one of the greatest rock songs ever written.  Not my words.  Talk to Rolling Stone magazine.  You will remember just how incredible it was hearing Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl for the first time execute such a passionate and electric song.  A song that overnight changed the landscape of the music world with its sharp, whip like commentary on the commercialization of teen culture in the 80’s. 

On the flip side of the coin, take a trained, dedicated bartender, give them quality tools and ingredients, and they will make your whiskey sing in the glass.  Instead of having the unenviable job of propping up the poor whiskey the novice used, this Old Fashioned is going take a quality whiskey and accent it in all right ways.  It will delicately pull out all the whiskey’s subtle notes that you may have missed while sipping it neat. 

The Old Fashioned will be silky smooth, but still a tad boozy.  The combination of sugar, water, and bitters will tame the whiskey’s edge ever so slightly, but it won’t take away its notorious bite.  It will be the perfect sip that will make you understand why this was the cocktail that helped jumpstart the cocktail revolution.  The Old Fashioned; simple yet stylish.

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Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit vanquished 80’s over indulgence and Glam metal almost overnight and ushered in a new era of rock for the next generation.  The Old Fashioned did something similar, except it all didn’t happen overnight.  The Old Fashioned cemented its self in modern history by helping jumpstart the modern cocktail revolution. 

How you might ask?  To give you a brief overview, we must go back to 1862 and the publishing of the first cocktail book Bar-Tender’s Guide; How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion by legendary barman Jerry Thomas.  There, Thomas references the “Whiskey Cocktail,” a drink bartenders had been making since the 1840’s.  This was the original iteration of Old Fashioned, but by a different name. 

Fast forward to the 1870’s, and new generation bartenders are starting kick out the old traditions and explore a whole new world of ingredients, including absinthe, Chartreuse, and other liqueurs.  This led to the advent of the “Improved” whiskey cocktails that utilized these new and unfamiliar ingredients.  The old guard didn’t take kindly to their favorite drinks being bastardized by this all these new ingredients and started asking their bartenders for an “Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.” 

This drink was much simpler than all the new and “improved” variations running around and harkened back to the similar specifications that we saw Jerry Thomas use in his book.  Thus, the renowned but simple combination whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters know as the Old Fashioned came to be.

Fifty years later our country makes the biggest of blunder and passed Prohibition, plunging US cocktail culture into what some like to call the Dark Ages. The most talented bartenders left the country for cocktail safe havens in Europe and elsewhere around the world, causing the biggest brain drain the cocktail community had ever seen.  Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the damage had been done.  

Very few bartenders brought their talents and knowledge back to the US and most of our cocktail history was lost to the sands of time.  There were a few small, safe havens for cocktail bartenders and enthusiasts to reside, such as in the Tiki tropical cocktail movement, but they never captured the country like the days of old.  During this time people started to put fruit in the Old Fashioned, most likely out of necessity to cover up the taste of really bad booze.  This was a sizable departure from the original Old Fashioned.  The introduction of vodka and club “cocktails” in the 70’s ensured that the Old Fashioned and US cocktail culture was on its death bed.

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In the 1980’s and 90’s, a few curious bartenders started to poke their heads around old cocktail books and reclaiming the art of the cocktail that had been last for so long.  Many of these bartenders started to make the Old Fashioned similar to those in the pre-Prohibition era. 

They started using fresh, high quality ingredients; a practice that flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom that consisted of club drinks.  Club drinks placed an emphasis on low costs ingredients and cranking out as many drinks as possible.   By the end of the 90’s and the start of the early 2000’s, you started to see cocktail bars pop up in major metropolitan areas around the country.  It was clear that something was starting to bubble under the surface of mainstream culture.  Something exciting was starting to happen.

In 2007, a cultural phenomenon swept the country in the form the dashingly handsome, sharp suit wearing, Old Fashioned pounding Don Draper and the hit AMC series Mad Men.  College kids across the country, whose only exposure to cocktails up until this point were terribly mixed Hop Skip and Go Nakeds and Adios Mother Fuckers, were having Old Fashioned fueled Mad Men viewing parties. 

Mainstream America had starting to dip their toes into the craft cocktail waters.   Don Draper famously muddles a metric ass ton of fruit into his Old Fashioned, prompting many of its viewers to do the same.  Eventually, people stopped wanting the amateurish version of the Old Fashioned made by their college buddy and sought out expert craft cocktail bartenders.

Thankfully for the general public, the cocktail scene had been quietly growing and growing around the country, becoming large enough to scratch the public’s newfound itch. College kids and adults alike started seeking out “speak easy” type bars in search of a proper Old Fashioned.  Once they walked through those speak easy doors, there was no turning back. 

Previously, they had only heard Smells Like Teen Spirit played by 13-year olds at a local talent show.  Walking through those cocktail bar doors had just exposed them to Nirvana.  Back then only a handful of places in each city could execute a proper Old Fashioned.

Now, in most major cities it is harder to find a bad Old Fashioned than it is to find a good one.  The cocktail industry is now worth billions. You can get a quality cocktail in Wyoming for God sakes.  Oh, how far we have come.  There were a lot of factors that led to this level of growth and success, but the introduction of the Old Fashioned to the American public at large was definitely one of them.

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old fashioned drink recipe

There are many different ways to make a killer Old Fashioned.  Purists and historians might suggest one way, and people from Wisconsin might suggest another.  Some say you can only use bourbon, while others say rye whiskey is the only way to make an old fashioned. 

The recipe I am suggesting here is the one we use at my award-winning bar called Allegory at the Eaton Hotel located in Washington, DC.  This recipe is designed to provide the best tasting Old Fashioned with the highest amount of consistency.  Enough talking.  Let’s make an Old Fashioned!

  • 2 ounces whiskey – I prefer either Eagle Rare bourbon or Old Overhold Bottled in Bond Rye whiskey
  • *1 tsp of rich demerara sugar syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash Regan’s Orange bitters
  • 1 Large ice cube (preferably)
  • 1 orange or lemon peel

Take a rocks glass and place a large ice cube inside.  Add bitters, rich demerara sugar syrup, and bourbon or rye whiskey to the glass.  Stir until the glass is hyper chilled and some of the cube has melted.  Peel an orange or lemon.  With the peel of the citrus facing the mouth of the glass, press down on both sides of the peel and express the citrus oil over the cocktail.  Place the peel of the citrus in the drink and enjoy the fruits of your labor!

*To make rich demerara sugar syrup, add 1 ounce of water to a pan and bring it to a near boil.  Add 2 ounces of demerara sugar to the water and stir until the sugar completely dissolved.   Take off stove and let sit until syrup is cool.  Place in a container and refrigerate for later use.

Alright Nomsters, that’s a wrap for today.  A huge thanks to Deke Dunne for sharing his knowledge on our latest post!  We hope you learned a lot about the Old Fashioned because we sure as hell did.  To see more from him, make sure to give him a follow on instagram and check out the following post: The Best To-Go Cocktails in the DMV Area.


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