Ah, the Old Fashioned. I'm so pleased that this came in as number three in my cocktail poll. This drink is much more my style than highballs. The Old Fashioned name came about in the 1880s, but comes from much earlier in the century. Originally in the early 1800s there was a newfangled drink called a "cocktail," which involved adding a little sweetener and some bitters to your shot of liquor. This was the extent of the original definition of a cocktail. Things started to get a little fancier over the decades though, and people were adding all kinds of things to cocktails. Later on, if you wanted just a good, ol' original cocktail, you needed to order yourself and old-fashioned cocktail.
There is a lot of chatter about the right way to make an Old Fashioned. There is the "original" way that snobs like me hold to, and then there are the myriad variations and bastardizations that have evolved over the years. I'm going to stick to my guns on what I consider a proper Old Fashioned, but I do want to say that everyone should drink what they like. That said, if you're gonna mess with a classic, you should rename the drink. An Old Fashioned is extremely simple, and does not involved muddled fruit. If you'd like to get a detailed run-down of a proper Old Fashioned, I recommend you check out the Old Fashioned 101 site.
Whiskey (Bourbon and Rye)
The classic spirit for this one is (North American) whiskey. Whether you use bourbon or rye is largely a matter of taste. I'm not about to get into holy wars over that one. I love them both. Whiskey, like many base spirits goes way back in time. Folks were swigging whiskey in the late middle ages, and it jumped over to North America with the settlers, and along the way an "e" got added to the name. Or something. Oh yeah, Ireland spells it whiskey as well, while the rest of the world spells it whisky. Since I'm sticking to the NA whiskies here, I'll just settle on the "e." Now there are actually lots of variations on NA whiskey, but I'm just going to focus on the main differences between Bourbon and Rye, and let you do your own research on the minutiae, if that floats your boat.
The biggest thing you may want to know is that Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, and (US) rye is, well, at least 51% rye. Many bourbons use rye, wheat or barley to make up the rest of the grain bill. You may hear people referring to a rye- or wheat-heavy bourbon, which is a reference to the percentage of non-corn grain in it. Most standard bourbons use rye as a flavoring grain, but a heavy-rye will use more than normal, while a wheat-heavy will replace the rye with wheat. Wheat and rye, not surprisingly, give you a different flavor profile. You may prefer one over other, or be like me and just love them both. Generally wheat is sweeter, while rye is drier and spicier. Related to that, bourbons, even the rye-heavy ones, are generally sweeter than an actual rye whiskey. You may notice I referred to the rye above as (US) rye, because in Canada you will find whiskey that is labeled rye, even though it may not actually have that much rye in it. That's because back in the day, Canadian whiskey was made from rye. Yeah, confusing.
I love me some whiskey, and I have way more than I really need for a home bar. I'm always trying out new whiskies, so I tend to have a rotating stock that is all over the map. Here's what I had on hand to explore the Old Fashioned.
Elijah Craig 12 yr (bourbon)
Wild Tukey 101 (bourbon)
Blanton's Special Reserve (bourbon)
Hudson Baby (100% corn bourbon)
Rittenhouse 100 (rye)
George Dickel (rye)
Simple syrup versus sugar
Oh boy, here's another can of worms with this drink. A lot of people swear by the sugar and water muddling process. It is a great ritual, and I'm sure there are people that can tell the difference somehow, but I'm at home, don't need to make a show, and I'm lazy. Simple syrup is so awesome. Simple syrup is just equal parts sugar and water, heated enough to dissolve the sugar, and done. I keep a bottle in my fridge all the time, as it is used pretty extensively in many cocktails. I also use it for my Old Fashioneds. That said, if you are a traditionalist, or just didn't get to making simple syrup, all you need to do is put the sugar in the glass, add a dash of water (I use the same measure I used for sugar), plus a dash of bitters. Stir that mess around until the sugar dissolves. It'll take a few minutes. The most important thing to remember with this method is to do this before you add the whiskey. Sugar doesn't really like to dissolve in alcohol, so you'll be setting yourself up for a world of frustration if you don't dissolve the sugar first.
The last component of the Old Fashioned is your bitters. This was the thing that made this a "cocktail" back in the day. An Old Fashioned is such a simple drink that you can really play around with bitters to have subtle effects on the drink. I realize most people only have a bottle of Angostura around, and that is great. It is a great, classic bitter that works in a lot of drinks, so by all means rock it. I keep a huge stock of it at home. I also really love Regans' Orange Bitters No. 6, which is another standard in my home bar. For more exploratory bitters, I like sampler kits. I don't use so much bitters that I need to have five or six full-sized bottles. Anyway, play around with it. You might be surprised what a difference it can make.
The final step once you have built the drink is to give it a little garnish. You may think that this is just to make it look pretty, but it is so much more than that. A citrus twist is giving you a wonderful aroma from citrus oils that get expressed. It adds a whole new layer to the drink. It's simple to do. You need a fresh orange (or whatever citrus floats your boat, really) and a peeler or small, sharp knife. You peel off a healthy strip of rind, without cutting into the fruit itself. Grab the peel in your fingers with the skin side over your drink and give the edges a squeeze. If the fruit was fresh enough, you should see a microshower of citrus oils rain on the cocktail. Swipe the rim of the glass with the peel and drop it in the glass. Take a sniff. Mmmm.
I pointed you to the great Old Fashioned 101 site above, but here is the quick recipe, as I make it.
1 teaspoon simple syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
2 oz. bourbon or rye whiskey
Build the ingredients in a rocks glass, add some ice, and give it an orange twist. If you find you don't like your Old Fashioned getting watered down, try using a bigger ice cube, which will melt slower, or you can even stir the ingredients with ice to chill and dilute it just a touch, and then strain it into the glass without ice. This would be having it "up," instead of "on the rocks" and it really is just a matter of preference.
I actually tasted all of my bourbons and ryes, but I did it in little mini, quarter-sized Old Fashioneds without ice, so I wouldn't drink myself under the table having eight hefty drinks. (Sadly, no friends could come over that day to help me out.) I made it a blind tasting and I was actually a little surprised by the results. My favorites in the bunch were two of the least expensive, and the second most expensive: Elijah Craig, George Dickel, and Blanton's. I really like Elijah Craig because I feel it is so solid and versatile. It is actually my standard "well" bourbon at home. I love Blanton's and always have it as well, as my main sipping bourbon. I currently have the Special Reserve, which is lower in ABV than the regular, and I really like the complex flavors, but when using this for Old Fashioneds, I prefer it served up since the ice really does dilute it a bit too much after a while. The George Dickel was actually my favorite, and I noted down that it was light on the tongue but had a lot of flavor. It was the top rye for me, but the Rittenhouse showed well too.
My most expensive bourbon is the Hudson Baby, and I've learned there are actually bourbons I don't like so much. It has a distinct flavor due to the 100% corn in the grain bill, and while I don't think it is a horrible bourbon, I think I just don't like 100% corn. Of the others I tasted, two of them are "over-proof," meaning they are over 100 proof. Those are the Wild Turkey 101 and the Booker's, which is 127.1 proof in my bottle. You can definitely taste the difference with these. There is the strong alcohol of course, but the quality of Booker's is apparent in that it lacks the roughness of the Wild Turkey, which is really too rough for an Old Fashioned, I think. The Booker's is really smooth for such a high proof. The Wild Turkey and the Hudson Baby are the only two that I would really rather not drink in an Old Fashioned, given the choice.