The History and Recipe for the Perfect Bourbon Old Fashion

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The History and Recipe for the Perfect Bourbon Old Fashion

The History of the Bourbon Old Fashion

When you get right down to it, the Bourbon Old Fashioned is little more than a slug of whiskey, seasoned and sweetened. Yet for all of its suave simplicity, the drink remains as relevant today as it was when it first captured drinkers’ hearts 200 years ago.

In truth, you could draw a straight line connecting this drink to the first recorded definition of the cocktail category in general (circa 1806), which calls for spirits, sugar, water and bitters. You could also skip the history lesson and simply make the drink. Do the latter.

Start by using good bourbon, the rule being that if you wouldn’t sip it by itself it has no place at the helm of a Bourbon Old Fashioned. (There are other whiskey drinks for masking sub-par booze—this isn’t one of them.) From there, the cocktail-minded seem to break into two camps: simple syrup or muddled sugar.

While a bar-spoon of syrup can cut your prep time in half, it robs the drink of some of the weight and texture that makes it so appealing. And anyway, what’s the big rush? The Bourbon Old Fashioned isn’t going anywhere.


  • 1⁄2 tsp Sugar
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 tsp Water
  • 2 oz Bourbon

Garnish: Orange peel
Glass: Rocks


  1. Add the sugar, bitters and water into a rocks glass, and stir until sugar is nearly dissolved.

  2. Fill the glass with large ice cubes, add the bourbon, and gently stir to combine the flavors.

  3. Express the oil of an orange peel over the glass, then drop in.


Spirit-forward Sweet
Base Spirit: Bourbon / American Whiskey Whiskey
Cocktail Type: Classics
Served: On the Rocks
Strength: Medium
Difficulty: Medium

A book by David Embury published in 1948 provides a slight variation, specifying 12 parts American whiskey, 1 part simple syrup, 1-3 dashes Angostura bitters, a twist of lemon peel over the top, and serve garnished with the lemon peel.

Two additional recipes from the 1900's vary in the precise ingredients, but omit the cherry which was introduced after 1930 as well as the soda water which the occasional recipe calls for. Orange bitters were a popular ingredient in the late 19th century.

Need to properly equip your bar or lounge? Try these sections out.
The Speakeasy
The Coffee House

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