For five straight years, the Old Fashioned has claimed the number one spot as the world’s best-selling cocktail. That comes as no surprise. Over the last decade or so, bars and restaurants have dusted off their bottles of bitters and upgraded their bar programs to feature classic drinks.
The Old Fashioned’s popularity has also found a home at home. Requiring only spirits, bitters, and sugar, its simplicity and drinkability have made it a top choice for stay-at-home bartenders. But simplicity doesn’t mean we can’t tamper a bit. Here are five ways to improve an already perfect libation.
Use Demerara Sugar Instead of Granulated Sugar
Traditional simple syrup—a 1:1 ratio of granulated sugar and water—works just fine in most cocktails, the Old Fashioned included. But if you want to add another layer of complexity and richness, opt for demerara over granulated sugar. Demerara sugar isn’t as processed and brings subtle notes of toffee and molasses to drinks, which complements the existing flavors of most dark spirits without getting in the way. Use a 2:1 ratio of demerara sugar-to-water for best results.
Change Up the Base Spirit
Purists argue for rye whiskey. Most are fine with bourbon. But why not both? Tiki drinks often call for the combination of a few different types of rum and your Old Fashioned will benefit just the same. Feel free to blend equal parts rye and bourbon to spice things up. Or don’t use whiskey at all. Rum, cognac, brandy, mezcal, tequila, and basically anything but vodka make for a great Old Fashioned. The name, after all, doesn’t refer to a specific spirit but rather a specific recipe: spirits with bitters and sugar. So get creative and experiment with different combinations.
Make Your Own Blend of Bitters
Thanks to an exploding cocktail culture across the globe, we now have several options of bitters. Angostura, of course, still rocks in this drink, but it’s certainly not the only answer. Everything from chocolate to habanero to peach will do wonders and definitively prove that variety is the spice of life. Once you settle on a combination of bitters that you love, mix up a large batch and store it in a dropper bottle. For example, a 4:1 ratio of Angostura aromatic bitters to Fee Brother’s whiskey barrel-aged bitters makes a great house blend. It shines beautifully in an Old Fashioned and upgrades any glass of whiskey, whether neat or on the rocks.
Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em
Adding a touch of smoke will not only impress your guests; it’ll impress your taste buds. And there are several ways to introduce smoky elements to drinks:
Flame an orange twist: This is the easiest method. Flaming an orange twist adds a subtle amount of smoke and builds on the drink’s bright components. Simply cut a peel of an orange, warm it with a kitchen match, then squeeze across the flame over the cocktail.
Use smoked ice: Smoking ice is easy but doesn’t look as cool and needs to be done ahead of time.
Burn wood with a kitchen torch: Every kitchen should have a torch! For cocktails, light a few wood chips or a wood plank on fire and cover it with a whiskey glass. Be sure to freeze the glass or coat it with whiskey first, so the smoke clings to it.
Buy a glass smoke box: If you don’t mind dropping over $200, you will most certainly impress the hell out your guests with this:
Buy a handheld smoking gun: You don’t need a glass box to achieve flavor and pizazz; a smoking gun will provide both without breaking your bank. You can add smoke right to your glass, your mixer tin, or to an empty bottle (add the prepared Old Fashioned to the bottle, cork and swirl for several minutes, pour over large ice).
Of all of these options, the smoking gun is your best bet. However, it’s debatable whether adding smokes actually improves the Old Fashioned or if it adds unnecessary flavoring. But a big part of enjoying mixology is the experience and smoking cocktails improves that experience.
Try Barrel Aging
There was a good chance that barrel aging cocktails would turn into nothing more than a gimmick. Instead, the process of aging spirits on countertops yields favorable results. Not only do you end up with a prebatched libation needing only a splash of bitters and ice, but you also manipulate the flavor profile by adding a subtle note of wood and smoke from the barrel. Be sure to research what should and should not go into a barrel, what type of barrel to buy, and how long to age your cocktails. And like smoking them, barrel aging improves the experience more than the actual drink, which is perfectly OK.