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Classic cocktails: the Old Fashioned

Classic cocktails: the Old Fashioned

Stewart Dick works in the Visitor Centre at Tomatin Distillery. He attended our Diploma in Single Malt Whisky in November 2019. Here, as a cocktail enthusiast, he muses over the details of what makes a good Old Fashioned cocktail…

When you think about cocktails, what do you picture? Elaborate and fruity Tiki drinks? Maybe Tom Cruise tossing bottles in the air? Cocktails haven’t always been over the top or complicated.

Originating in 1800s America, the origins of the drink – initially known simply as The Whiskey Cocktail – are mostly lost to the mists of time with numerous claims having been made as to its invention. The claims on its origin are almost as numerous as the various evolutions of the recipe itself.

The earliest incarnations of the drink were the epitome of that early definition with bartenders muddling sugar and bitters before adding whiskey and water and serving at room temperature. It was this version of the drink that was first mentioned in Jerry Thomas’ How to Make Drinks in 1862. The first book of its kind, Thomas listed the ingredients as two dashes of Bokers Bitters, twice as many dashes of Gum syrup and a wine glass of whiskey. The drink was shaken and fine strained into a “fancy red wine glass”. Later, with the increased availability of liqueurs around the 1870s, bartenders began producing “Improved Whiskey Cocktails” by including dashes of these liqueurs in the drink. This evolution led to a revolt amongst drinkers who began asking bartenders to “Make me a drink in the Old Fashioned Way”. This paved the way for an Old Fashioned that closely resembled what we think of today; a drink that was made in the glass in which it was served and was served as a sipping drink on the rocks.

Readers who have studied the Diploma in Single Malt Whisky will be well aware of the influence Prohibition had on the whisk(e)y industry. Well, it also had a big influence on bartending and cocktails. Following the repeal of Prohibition, the Old Fashioned recipe once again evolved with the inclusion of various fruits which were muddled at the bottom of the glass. It has been theorised that the addition of fruit was meant to disguise the taste of the poor quality spirits available following Prohibition. The popularity of the drink continued through the mid-20th century, its status waning – along with that of whisky in general – with the growth in popularity of vodka in the 1970s and 1980s.

By the turn of the century, bartenders and mixologists were revisiting old cocktail manuals; they were connecting online with other bartenders and a new cocktail revival begun. There was a revolt against the super sweet and often neon coloured drinks that had become increasingly popular. The opening of bars like Milk & Honey in New York and the creation of spirits brand ambassadors led the way for a different kind of cocktail culture, one which favoured the quality of the base spirit over the use of super sweet ingredients that often masked it. This new focus was the perfect opportunity for classic cocktails to make a comeback and for bartenders to return to “the Old Fashioned way”.

The Old Fashioned Way

Robert Simonson’s The Old Fashioned book lists umpteen versions and variations on the Old Fashioned recipe, including the one listed above and a handful of others that could be considered classic. It is these recipes that I referred to when deciding on the recipe to use for this comparison.

Born in America, the original version would of course have used American whiskey. It is therefore only right that we first discuss how three stateside whiskies lend themselves to the Old Fashioned. This trio are all bottled at 45% ABV.

  1. Bulleit Rye
    Some of the earliest versions would likely have used rye whiskey as their base spirit. With its mash bill made up of 95% rye, Bulleit Rye is one of the highest rye content whiskies available. Sourced from Midwest Grain Products (MGP), Bulleit Rye is sweet on the nose with pine, honeysuckle, grass, and citrus. On the palate, the rye content creates a rich spiciness and complexity. The predominant note for me was salted caramel popcorn coupled with strawberry cream, oak and malted barley.

    This whiskey stands up well to being used in an Old Fashioned, the spiciness of the rye makes itself known and that salted caramel popcorn note is still in evidence. The ingredients of the cocktail work in harmony with this whiskey, creating a beautifully well-balanced drink.

  2. Bulleit Bourbon
    Bulleit Bourbon’s mash bill consists of 69% corn, 28% rye and 4% barley. This results in a balanced bourbon with notes of orange, pineapple and honey one the nose. On the palate, this whiskey is oaky with a thick caramel mouth feel and a little spiciness. For me, the addition of water completely flattened this whiskey.

    In the Old Fashioned, this whiskey created an interesting nuttiness which was evident on the nose and even more so in the taste. In spite of the interesting nutty notes, the Bulleit was really overpowered by the sugar, creating a drink that was sickly sweet. This is perhaps not surprising given the fact that the water overpowered the whiskey.

  3. Buffalo Trace Bourbon
    Buffalo Trace produces in the region of 20 different brands and expressions using a handful of different mash bills. The exact make up of those mash bills are closely guarded secret. Buffalo Trace itself is made using Mash Bill #1 which is thought to contain less than 10% rye, making it a low rye bourbon. The nose has light honey notes as well as apricot and old leather. The low rye content of this whiskey means it has very little spice on the palate. It also has a fairly light mouth feel and notes of malt and charred meat. The addition of water turns it into pure caramel.

    Like the Bulleit Rye, Buffalo Trace stands up well to being used in a cocktail and the character of the whiskey comes through well in the Old Fashioned. The notes of maltiness and corn are apparent, the spiciness of the bitters is also able to shine though.

I found it hard to pick a favourite out of the three but, for me, the Bulleit Rye version takes the lead by a nose over the Buffalo Trace. I found it interesting how the different mash bills can have such a huge influence on how the whiskey stands up to being used in a cocktail. With the Old Fashioned having so few ingredients, everything must be perfectly balanced otherwise it creates a drink that is simply not as enjoyable.

In cocktails, style is king

While American bartenders in the 1800s were creating the first cocktails to make what would likely have been “a rascally liquor” more palatable, drinkers in Scotland would have been mixing their spirit with honey in what would become the precursor to today’s liqueurs. These two forks in the road led to the development of diverse drink traditions but things could have been very different. Here, we explore how different styles of Scotch whisky lend themselves to the Old Fashioned. This trio are all bottled at 40% ABV.

  1. Grants Blended Whisky
    For a lot of whisky fans, it’s mostly all about the single malt (it’s certainly the case for me). However, it would be wrong to overlook blended whisky (which makes up around 90% of global whisky sales). Grants consistently ranks in the top five brands and it happens to be the blended whisky I keep on hand. Produced by William Grant and Sons and matured in a combination of Virgin Oak, Ex-Bourbon and American Oak casks, Grants has notes of orange, malted barley and struck matches. On the palate, Grants is smooth and gentle with notes of vanilla, honey and malt loaf. The character of the whisky is somewhat overtaken by the cocktail ingredients. However, unlike the Bulleit Bourbon, the taste of the alcohol is very much still there with the Grants. The drink remains balanced and pleasant but, for me, lacks complexity.

  2. Glen Moray Elgin Classic
    Owned by French spirits producer, La Martiniquaise, this Glen Moray expression is matured mostly in first fill ex-Bourbon cask for an average of seven years. It is a young whisky and the distillery spirit character is evident on the nose with notes of appletiser, malted barley and a hint of banana. On the palate, this whisky has notes of soft caramel and malt. Like Grants, the Glen Moray is quite a light whisky, but the whisky holds up well, with some of the malt notes coming through. This version also highlights the influence of the bitters on the drink.

  3. Tamnavulin Double Cask
    Now owned by Whyte & Mackay, Tamnavulin re-entered the single malt whisky market in 2016 after being absent for many years. Most of the distillery’s spirit is sent to Invergordon for maturation with only around 60 barrels per week filled on site. I’m reliably informed that the double cask spends most of its roughly eight year maturation at Invergordon in American Oak with a short finish of around six months in sherry casks. The distillery spirit character is evident on the nose along with notes of lemon and fresh apple pie. On the palate, this whisky is heavily influenced by the ex-Bourbon maturation with oak notes as well as caramel, vanilla and honey. It is quite a boisterous whisky that benefits form a little time in the glass to relax.

The character of the base spirit is very evident, particularly the boisterousness of the liquid. While the other two whiskies were somewhat overtaken by the sugar and bitters, the Tamnavulin version is the opposite, with the whisky crowding out the other flavours.

Out of the three Scotches and in spite of the fact that much of its base character was overpowered, Grants was the clear winner for me. The fact that the whisky flavour is pushed to the back for me creates something of a blank canvas. By returning to the original definition of “sprits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters” we are left with a formula that allows near endless variation and opportunities to substitute alternative and interesting ingredients.

Can you improve the Old Fashioned?

Like the whisky industry, cocktail making is built upon a mix of tradition and innovation. The simplicity of the Old Fashioned makes it the perfect drink for innovation as simple changes and swaps can go a long way in creating a more interesting drink. The earlier experimentations highlighted to me the need for the base spirit to be robust and rich. It was clear from the Scotches I used that a higher ABV lends itself to a more rounded cocktail.

Tomatin 12 (46% ABV)
Full disclosure, I work for Tomatin Distillery in the Visitor Centre. Like the other two single malts, Tomatin has had a number of owners. It is currently owned by Japanese company Takara Shuzo who have owned the distillery since the 1980s. Tomatin 12 year old is a marriage of whisky matured in ex-Bourbon and sherry casks. The nose, for me, is mostly influenced by the sherry maturation. Apple, pears, raisins and figs. A hint of citrus and melon. The palate, on the other hand, gains most of its flavours from the Bourbon casks with lots of vanillins and a slightly nutty, oily finish.

Eagle Rare (45% ABV)
Here, we return to Buffalo Trace and mash bill #1, bottled at 45% Unlike its brother, however, Eagle Rare is matured for at least 10 years. The comparison of these two whiskies is an incredible demonstration of how maturation can change the style of a whisk(e)y and create a liquid that is significantly richer. On the nose there are notes of pear drops, maple syrup and citrus. The palate meanwhile is a mix of lemon, vanilla cream and malt loaf, with a black pepper tingle on the tongue.


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