best bourbon for old fashioned

Best Bourbon for Old Fashioned: Top Picks for Classic Cocktails

The Old Fashioned is a testament to the timeless allure of bourbon, a spirit deeply rooted in American history. With its simple yet sophisticated blend of bourbon, sugar, water, and bitters, this classic cocktail has been a mainstay on bar menus since as far back as the 1800s. The quality and flavor profile of the bourbon selected can dramatically influence the taste of an Old Fashioned, making the choice of bourbon a crucial step in crafting the perfect rendition of this storied drink.

Selecting the best bourbon for an Old Fashioned is both an art and a science, as the strong, often spicy flavors of bourbon need to intermingle harmoniously with the sweetness of the sugar and the herbal complexity of the bitters. With a diverse range of bourbons available, from the robust and full-bodied to the smooth and mellow, enthusiasts and bartenders often engage in spirited debates about which bourbon creates the quintessential Old Fashioned. The decision is influenced by factors such as the bourbon's age, mashbill, proof, and nuanced tasting notes, as well as the drinker's personal preference and the specific occasion.

Key Takeaways

  • Bourbon's unique characteristics shape the Old Fashioned's flavor.
  • The perfect bourbon choice balances with other cocktail components.
  • Selecting bourbon involves personal taste and occasion suitability.

What Is Bourbon?

Bourbon is a distinctive style of whiskey that originates from the United States, profoundly rooted within Kentucky. To earn the title "bourbon," this spirit must adhere to specific regulations.

The foundation of bourbon lies in its mash bill, a recipe of grains that dictate its fundamental character. By law, it must consist of at least 51% corn, which imparts a noticeable sweetness to the final product. The remainder

The Art of the Old Fashioned

An Old Fashioned exemplifies the elegance of classic cocktails, remaining steadfastly popular in the world of mixology. At its core, the recipe is deceptively simple, but each ingredient and step in the preparation contributes to the overall experience of this venerable drink.


  • Bourbon
  • Bitters
  • Sugar cube or simple syrup
  • Orange twist
  • Ice cube


A traditional Old Fashioned begins with a sugar cube, which some prefer for its controlled sweetness and the ritual of muddling. Others opt for simple syrup for its consistency and ease of blending. The sugar is placed at the bottom of a glass, where it meets several dashes of bitters — a key component that imparts a complex flavor profile.

The choice of bourbon is crucial; it should have enough character to stand up to the sweetness and the bitters without overpowering them. The cocktail is then stirred over an ice cube, which chills and dilutes the mix slightly — a process known as dilution. This step is essential, as it mellows the drink and integrates the ingredients. As for the garnish, an orange twist adds a citrus aroma that complements the bourbon's richness.

The Process:

  1. Place a sugar cube or simple syrup in the glass
  2. Add several dashes of bitters
  3. Muddle the sugar (if using a cube) with bitters
  4. Pour in the bourbon of choice
  5. Add a large ice cube for slow dilution
  6. Stir the mixture to chill
  7. Garnish with an orange twist

An Old Fashioned cocktail is more than its parts; the craft lies in balancing the richness of bourbon, the sweetness of the sugar, the spice of the bitters, and the freshness of the orange. It invites the drinker to savor each sip, reflecting on the time-honored techniques that make this cocktail a masterpiece of mixology.

Selecting the Best Bourbon for an Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned is a classic cocktail that demands a bourbon of high quality. The best selection hinges on specific attributes such as flavor profile, proof, and value. Personal preference plays a key role, as does the balance of flavors that the bourbon brings to this iconic drink.

Flavor Profile and Complexity

When choosing a bourbon for an Old Fashioned, the flavor profile should offer complexity and balance. Bourbons that possess notes of caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon tend to complement the cocktail’s simple ingredients. A hint of citrus or orange peel pairs well with the cocktail's traditional garnish, while subtler tones of honey or maple syrup can enhance the drink's overall richness.

Proof and Texture

The proof of the bourbon contributes significantly to the cocktail's texture and overall experience. A bourbon with a higher proof, around 100 to 120, provides a robust flavor and a full-bodied texture, holding its own against the sweetness and dilution from the added sugar and ice. On the other hand, a smooth bourbon with a medium proof offers a more mellow texture, suitable for those preferring a softer drink.

Price and Value

Bourbons come at various price points, but a high-quality Old Fashioned doesn't necessitate an expensive bottle. Value is found in bourbons that offer a fine balance between cost and taste quality. Consumers should look for a bourbon that delivers on flavor and complexity without breaking the bank, as the nuances of a more expensive bourbon may be lost in cocktail form.


A bartender-favored option for an Old Fashioned is Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel, which brings richness and depth to the drink. Another suggestion is Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve, known for its sweet profile with a substantial proof that adds a lively kick to the cocktail. These selections stand out for their ability to balance and enhance the traditional flavors of an Old Fashioned.

Each bourbon brings a unique quality to the cocktail, so the selection ultimately depends on the desired taste experience. Whether a preference for a sweeter drink or one with a spirited punch, there is a bourbon that fits every Old Fashioned connoisseur's palate.

Notable Bourbons for an Old Fashioned

Selecting the right bourbon for an Old Fashioned can significantly influence the cocktail’s overall flavor. This section highlights some standout options in both craft and widely available categories.

Craft and Small Batch Options

  • Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: Renowned for its depth, featuring notes of maple syrup, brown sugar, and vanilla, it lends a unique profile to the Old Fashioned.
  • Elijah Craig Small Batch: With a balance of sweetness and spice, this bourbon adds complexity to the classic cocktail.
  • Four Roses Small Batch: Blended from several select barrels, it provides a consistent and smooth drinking experience.
  • Eagle Rare: A notable single barrel bourbon that brings a hint of almond and cocoa to the mix, enhancing the richness of the Old Fashioned.

Popular and Widely Available Choices

  • Buffalo Trace: A staple in many bars, it offers a spicy and oaky flavor that makes a reliable base for an Old Fashioned.
  • Woodford Reserve: Known for its smooth character, this bourbon incorporates over 200 flavor notes, including dried fruit and caramel, making it a versatile choice.
  • Bulleit: With a high rye content, Bulleit imparts a bold, spicy flavor profile that stands up well in an Old Fashioned.
  • Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel: It adds a sweet finish while maintaining the smoothness esteemed in an Old Fashioned.
  • Old Forester: A classic choice, praised for its rich flavor and affordability.
  • Evan Williams: Offers a budget-friendly option that doesn't sacrifice quality, possessing caramel and vanilla notes that meld well with the cocktail's ingredients.

These bourbons range from complex and nuanced small batch offerings to dependable and accessible selections, each providing a distinct character to the Old Fashioned.

Ingredients and Substitutions

The right selection of ingredients and their substitutions is critical in the creation of an Old Fashioned that stays true to its classic profile while allowing for personal preference and availability.

Sweetening Agents

The Old Fashioned cocktail traditionally uses a sugar cube, which can be muddled for sweetness. However, bartenders often substitute granulated sugar for more control over sweetness. Simple syrup is another common replacement, offering a dissolved solution that mixes evenly. For a deeper flavor, maple syrup or honey can be used, adding complexity with their distinctive tastes. Likewise, cane sugar offers a slight molasses note that may enrichen the cocktail's profile.

  • Sugar cube: Muddle with bitters for traditional sweetness.
  • Simple syrup: Stir in for consistent sweetness throughout.
  • Maple syrup/Honey: Use for added flavor dimensions.

Citrus Elements

A classic Old Fashioned features an orange twist, expressing oils over the drink's surface. Those looking to enhance the citrus aroma may opt for a broader orange zest or even include a small piece of the fruit itself. In some recipes, a cocktail cherry, like Luxardo or Fabbri, is added, providing both fruitiness and an additional hint of sweetness.

  • Orange twist: Express over the drink for a light orange aroma.
  • Orange zest/Orange: Incorporate for a more pronounced citrus character.
  • Luxardo/Fabbri cherry: Add for extra sweetness and a touch of cherry flavor.

Bitters Varieties

Angostura bitters is the classic choice, delivering a balance of spice, sweetness, and bitterness, necessary for the quintessential Old Fashioned taste. Artisan and flavored bitters can substitute in to tweak the taste; chocolate, walnut, or cherry bitters create variations that still respect the cocktail's essence.

  • Angostura bitters: Add for the traditional spice and complexity.
  • Artisan/flavored bitters: Substitute to introduce new flavor notes.

Mixology Techniques

In the art of cocktail creation, precision in technique is crucial. The following subsections delve into the specifics of stirring and dilution, ice selection, and garnishing, which are fundamental to constructing a refined Old Fashioned.

Stirring and Dilution

A bartender's stirring method is key to achieving the right balance of flavor and dilution. An Old Fashioned should be stirred gently for approximately 30 to 45 seconds. This not only chills the drink but also introduces just enough water to soften the bite of the bourbon without masking its distinctive characteristics.

Ice Selection

The decision of ice usage dramatically affects the temperature and dilution rate of an Old Fashioned. Large ice cubes or spheres are preferred as they melt slowly, chilling the cocktail efficiently without over-diluting it. Fast melting ice can water down the drink and should be avoided.


The final flourish of garnishing significantly contributes to the aroma and taste of an Old Fashioned. A classic garnish involves an orange twist, which releases essential oils over the drink, and a cherry, providing a subtle fruitiness. An orange zest can be rubbed around the rim of the glass before being added to the drink for an extra burst of flavor.

Serving and Presentation

When serving an Old Fashioned, the choice of glassware and garnish is nearly as important as the bourbon itself. The right presentation enhances the cocktail's appeal and speaks to its storied tradition.


An Old Fashioned is traditionally served in a rocks glass, also known as an Old Fashioned glass. This glass is short and typically holds between 6 to 8 ounces. The wide brim allows for easy sipping, while the thick base is ideal for muddling ingredients, if needed, and supports the weight of a large ice cube. The use of a single large ice cube is preferred as it melts slowly, chilling the cocktail without diluting it excessively.

Garnish and Aesthetics

The aesthetics of an Old Fashioned are simple yet elegant. A typical garnish includes:

  • Orange Twist: A swath of orange peel is often twisted over the drink to release essential oils, then rubbed around the rim of the glass and added to the cocktail.
  • Cherry: A maraschino cherry is a traditional garnish that adds a touch of sweetness and a pop of color.

The garnishes are not just decorative; they contribute to the aroma and the overall tasting experience. Presentation should be neat, showcasing the clarity of the drink and the complementary colors of the garnish.

Pairing and Occasions

Selecting the best bourbon for an Old Fashioned not only enhances the cocktail's flavor profile but also complements the food it's paired with and the occasion it's served at. The key to an unforgettable experience is matching the bourbon's depth and layered nuances with the right partners.

Food Pairings

When indulging in an Old Fashioned, certain foods enhance the complexity of the drink.

  • Cheese: Bold cheeses like blue cheese or sharp cheddar balance the strong flavors of the bourbon.
  • Meats: Smoked meats or cured sausages introduce a savory contrast that works well with the sweet and spicy notes of the cocktail.
  • Desserts: Dark chocolate or caramel desserts echo the sweet and warm elements of both the bourbon and the cocktail's recipe.

Pairing food with an Old Fashioned should be done thoughtfully to ensure a harmonious blend of flavors.

Seasonal and Event-Based Servings

The Old Fashioned adapts well to various seasons and events, offering different experiences based on the serving context.

  • Summer Gatherings: A lighter bourbon with fruity accents complements outdoor, summertime occasions.
  • Fall Festivities: Rich, spicy bourbons enhance the warmth needed for cozy autumn celebrations.
  • Winter Holidays: Full-bodied bourbons with notes of vanilla and oak bring depth to the holiday spirit.
  • Special Events: Premium, aged bourbons add an exclusive touch to weddings, anniversaries, and milestone birthdays.

Choosing the bourbon's profile to align with the season or event elevates the Old Fashioned from a mere drink to an integral part of the celebration.

Aging and Storage

When selecting a bourbon for an Old Fashioned, the quality and characteristics imparted by aging and storage are crucial considerations.

Bottle Aging

Bourbon does not age in the bottle, meaning once it’s sealed, the aging process ceases. The age stated on the label reflects the time spent in the cask before bottling. However, proper bottle storage is essential to maintain the bourbon's integrity. The bourbon should be kept upright to avoid contact with the cork, which may alter the flavor over time, and stored away from direct sunlight and at a stable temperature to preserve its intended profile.

Cask Importance

The cask in which bourbon is aged plays a pivotal role in flavor development. By law, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, with American white oak being the standard. The char level of the cask influences the bourbon's sweetness, richness, and smoky undertones.

  • Material: Typically, the barrels are constructed of American white oak, which imparts desirable vanilla, caramel, and toasty notes.
  • Char Level: Barrels are charred to varying degrees; the common levels are #1 (light) to #4 (heavy), with a #4 char imparting more intense flavors.
  • Age: The aging period profoundly impacts a bourbon’s flavor. Bourbon can be called 'straight' if it has been aged for at least two years, but many premium bourbons mature much longer.
  • Temperature Fluctuations: Warehouses in Kentucky, due to their climate, experience high-temperature variance, aiding the interaction between the whiskey and the wood, thereby enhancing the bourbon's complexity.

Age and storage conditions are therefore foundational to a bourbon’s final character, impacting its suitability for an Old Fashioned.

Bourbon Varieties and Character

When selecting a bourbon for an Old Fashioned, its mash bill and proof greatly influence the cocktail's final flavor profile. Some bourbons offer a rye-forward taste with a spicy kick, while others are high-proof, providing a robust base that stands up to dilution and garnishments.

Rye-Forward Bourbons

Rye-forward bourbons are typically characterized by a higher percentage of rye grain in the mash bill. This results in a bourbon with a spicy and bold character, often exhibiting notes of black pepper and other warm spices. Elijah Craig and Bulleit Bourbon are well-known for their rye-forward expressions, imparting a vigorous flavor to an Old Fashioned that can be tempered by the cocktail's sweetness.

  • Elijah Craig: With a balanced spice profile, it's a solid choice for those seeking both warmth and depth.
  • Bulleit Bourbon: Offers a distinct rye presence that provides a spicy foundation to the cocktail.

High-Proof Selections

High-proof bourbons typically refer to those with an alcohol content above the standard 40% ABV. These selections maintain their flavor integrity even when mixed with other ingredients. High-proof bourbons infuse the Old Fashioned with intensity and a more pronounced bourbon essence.

  • Buffalo Trace: Known for its bold character, Buffalo Trace offers high-proof options that stand out in a cocktail.
  • Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: At 120 proof, it ensures a potent and dynamic addition to an Old Fashioned, delivering a pronounced sweetness paired with a high-proof punch.

By choosing a rye-forward or high-proof bourbon, one can tailor the Old Fashioned's flavor according to personal preference, ensuring a complex and satisfying experience.

Consumer Buying Guide

When selecting the best bourbon for an Old Fashioned, consumers should focus on understanding the market and finding a quality bourbon within their budget. Both factors play pivotal roles in the decision-making process.

Understand the Market

The bourbon market offers a diverse range of products with different flavor profiles ideal for crafting an Old Fashioned. Consumers are advised to research and recognize the characteristics of bourbons, which can range from sweet wheated bourbons to robust high-rye varieties. A bourbon's proof, which denotes its alcohol content, can also greatly impact its suitability for this classic cocktail. Higher proof bourbons, noted for their intense flavors, can stand up well to dilution when mixed.

Finding Quality within Budget

Quality bourbon doesn't have to break the bank. Prices vary widely, and consumers should compare available options:

  • High-End Picks: These bourbons may come at a premium price but offer unique and nuanced flavors for an exceptional Old Fashioned.
  • Mid-Range Selections: Balancing cost and quality, mid-range bourbons provide good taste without a hefty price tag.
  • Budget-Friendly Choices: Affordable yet quality bourbons exist for consumers looking to enjoy a good Old Fashioned without a significant investment.

It is important to remember that price does not always correlate with compatibility for an Old Fashioned. Recommendations from bartenders and expert reviews can be valuable, but ultimately, personal taste should guide the final choice. Consumers should also be aware that some retailers may earn a commission for featured products, but this should not deter one from seeking the best value for their needs.

Tasting Notes and Reviews

When selecting a bourbon for an Old Fashioned, the harmony of tasting notes with the cocktail's ingredients is paramount. Professional mixologists and tasting communities often highlight specifics such as the presence of vanilla, caramel, and the overall smoothness of the bourbon to complement this classic drink.

Professional Opinions

Renowned bartenders often recommend bourbons that enhance an Old Fashioned with their unique characteristics. One such bourbon is Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel, which is lauded for its sweet finish and smooth nature. Another widely praised choice is Buffalo Trace, known for its balanced notes of caramel and vanilla, making it an excellent base for the cocktail. Four Roses Small Batch is similarly recommended for its sweet and light profile at an accessible price point.

  • Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel: Sweet finish, maintains smoothness
  • Buffalo Trace: Balanced caramel and vanilla notes
  • Four Roses Small Batch: Dang smooth, hints of caramel, dark fruit, rye spice

Community Consensus

The bourbon enthusiasts' community often concurs with professionals and singles out certain bourbons for their flavor profiles conducive to an excellent Old Fashioned. Buffalo Trace, for its affordability and pleasing complexity, often receives nods of approval, as does Eagle Rare for its distinctive notes that blend well with the cocktail's simplicity.

  • Buffalo Trace: Popular for its mix of affordability and complexity
  • Eagle Rare: Distinctive profile, pairs well with the Old Fashioned's simplicity

Through these specific tasting notes and reviews, aficionados can make informed decisions on which bourbons to use for creating a delightful Old Fashioned experience.

Cocktail Variations and Creativity

In pursuit of the perfect Old Fashioned, bartenders experiment with variations and innovative techniques that honor the spirit of the classic cocktail while introducing new flavors and experiences.

Twists on the Classic

The quintessential Old Fashioned, traditionally made with bourbon or rye, embraces simplicity with its sugar, bitters, and water composition. Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey is often hailed for its rich flavor profile, balancing sweet with spicy, making it a fine choice for this storied drink. However, variation in this context goes beyond the choice of bourbon or rye.

Creative bartenders may incorporate specialty simple syrups or garnishes to complement the base spirit, for example:

  • Alternative Sweeteners: Demerara syrup, honey syrup, or maple syrup
  • Garnish Twists: Expressions of citrus peels beyond orange, such as grapefruit or lemon

Amidst these variations, they preserve the integrity of the Old Fashioned, ensuring that any twist serves to elevate the core cocktail.

Innovative Techniques

Innovative techniques play a crucial role in the evolution of the Old Fashioned. Such methods can include:

  • Fat Washing: Infusing bourbon with bacon or butter for a savory nuance
  • Ice Innovations: Using smoke-infused ice cubes to add a new dimension

These approaches showcase creativity while maintaining respect for the time-honored cocktail. The skillful application of these innovative techniques can define a bartender's signature version of the Old Fashioned, offering patrons a unique taste experience grounded in the rich tradition of cocktail craftsmanship.

Frequently Asked Questions

When exploring bourbons suitable for an Old Fashioned, enthusiasts frequently inquire about value, pairing with bitters, budget-friendly options, and bartenders' preferences. The following FAQs address these specific concerns comprehensively.

What bourbon offers the best value for preparing an Old Fashioned?

The best value bourbon for an Old Fashioned strikes a balance between quality and affordability. Elijah Craig offers mid-range priced bourbons that provide a sweet finish and maintain smoothness, making it a value-conscious choice for this classic cocktail.

Which bitters complement an Old Fashioned cocktail perfectly?

Angostura bitters are commonly recommended for their ability to complement the cocktail with their balance of sweetness and spice. The aromatic profile enhances the bourbon's flavors without overwhelming them.

Which budget-friendly bourbon is recommended for an Old Fashioned?

For a budget-friendly bourbon that doesn’t sacrifice flavor, Buffalo Trace stands out. It's recognized for its versatility in cocktails and its accessible price point.

What is the preferred bourbon choice for bartenders when making an Old Fashioned?

Bartenders often prefer using bourbons like Buffalo Trace or Elijah Craig, known for their consistency and balanced flavor profiles that contribute to the classic taste of an Old Fashioned.

Can you suggest a bourbon that is equally good for sipping and mixing in an Old Fashioned?

Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve is often cited as a versatile bourbon that excels both as a sipping spirit and as a crucial ingredient in a well-crafted Old Fashioned.

Between bourbon and rye, which is the superior whiskey for crafting an Old Fashioned?

The choice between bourbon and rye whiskey for an Old Fashioned comes down to personal preference. Bourbon tends to bring a sweeter, full-bodied flavor, while rye offers a spicier kick. The best is subjective and depends on the drinker's palate.

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