Fifteen years ago, it’s doubtful that a competition to signify the best Old-Fashioned would have found many takers. It wasn’t a cocktail that the people either tending bars or holding them up were thinking much about. It was a has-been drink, a sweet muddled mess that your grandmother favored. 

The Old-Fashioned was truly Old-Fashioned.

How much has changed. The Old-Fashioned is now—and has been for several years—the go-to cocktail for the hip, the young, the epicure, the traditionalist, the cocktail snob, the cocktail newbie, men, women… hell, everybody.

We can thank our friendly neighborhood mixologists for this happy reversal of fortune. During the first decade of this century, ardent young bartenders took it upon themselves to crack the code of the cocktail, one of the oldest in the canon, and find out what had once made it so beloved. With the help of old, pre-Prohibition drink manuals, they returned the Old-Fashioned to its origins, when it was called the Whiskey Cocktail, and was a simple compound of spirit, sugar, bitters and water. (The “Old-Fashioned” prefix, which came to be the drink’s common name, was attached in the late-19th century when barkeeps began messing around with the basic formula, leading hidebound drinkers to cry out for an Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.)

Dispensed with, in this new era, was the fruit, usually an orange slice and cherry, which became a regular feature in the years after Prohibition’s repeal. Such “garbage,” in the lingo of detractors, was either plopped into the drink whole or muddled at the bottom of the glass—or both. Modern bartenders wanted none of it. They aimed to showcase the whiskey, be it bourbon or rye, not mask it. A simple orange twist, or lemon, or both, would do. Gone, too, were crowning spurts of soda water or soda pop and the crappy ice which typically sullied the drink. Modern Old-Fashioneds are now anchored by a single large chunk of ice.

That this pared-down style remains the status quo at the nation’s better cocktail bars was borne out recently when PUNCH put out the call for Old-Fashioned recipes in order to determine the best specimen. (You’ll still find the fruited rendition at rank-and-file taverns across America.) Joining us to blind-taste the 17 entries were Tom Macy, head bartender and partner at Clover Club in Brooklyn; Lynnette Marrero, bar director of Llama Inn in Brooklyn and co-founder of the bartending competition Speed Rack; and Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons in Manhattan. Eryn Reece, head bartender at the newly opened Banzarbar, was behind the PUNCH bar.

Unlike previous tastings for other cocktails, there were few outliers among the submissions. Contestants hewed closely to the time-tested model. Though the bartenders were not instructed to stick to whiskey—the Old-Fashioned model can be, and often is, applied to nearly any spirit—everyone did. Bourbon was asked for as often as rye. And aside from one formula which called for sorghum syrup, all the drinks were sweetened with some form of sugar, either raw or simple syrups of various richness. Garnishes ranged from orange twist to lemon twist to a combination of both, known as “rabbit ears.”

The most experimentation came in the bitters department, where participants often opted for more than one brand, typically combining the classic Angostura with another type, usually orange bitters.

Each of these ingredient choices are highly important matters in the building of the drink, according to the panelists. Marrero said she selects her twist, bitters and type of sugar “based on the whiskey I’m using.” Simó and Macy added that, because the drink so openly celebrates its chosen spirit, the whiskey should be of quality.

“I wouldn’t make an Old-Fashioned with something I wouldn’t sip neat,” said Simó.

When confronted with a drink that obviously used two or more bitters, the panel generally saw the wisdom in the choice. “I like simplicity,” said Macy. “But if you could add one thing to this drink, I would say another kind of bitters.”

A number of drinks called for a muddled sugar cube. These were easily spotted by the loose grains of sugar left sitting at the bottom of the glass. None of the judges were in favor of this method, at least in a bar setting, believing the use of simple syrup aided both speed and consistency of flavor.

A common failing in the construction of many Old-Fashioneds, the panel believed, came down to precision. If you didn’t hit the exact right amount of sugar and dilution, you could end up with a drink that was too sweet, too dry, too astringent, too flabby, too strong, too weak. While the elements in the drink are few, they all need to be carefully controlled.

When all those elements came together in harmony, as happened a few times during the tasting, it was immediately apparent. The top three vote-getters were all widely liked, with the champion drink chosen as the best by all three judges, this writer and Punch Editor in Chief Talia Baiocchi. This was Macy’s own recipe, which he serves at Clover Club. It called for two ounces of Wild Turkey Rye 101, a teaspoon of 2:1 demerara syrup and three “healthy dashes” of a bitters mix made up of Angostura, Bitter Truth orange bitters and Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters. For garnish, both a lemon and orange peel were used. The judges found the drink had a pleasing layering of flavors and was a good illustration of how a well-chosen whiskey can set an Old-Fashioned apart.

Coming in second was New Orleans bartender Chris Hannah, who calls for a high-rye bourbon (Bulleit was employed for the tasting), two muddled demerara sugar cubes, two dashes each of Angostura and NOLA’s own Peychaud’s and an orange twist. The judges thought the drink likably strong, with the correct sugar level.

Simó’s drink took the third spot. To two ounces of Russell’s Reserve 10 Year Old Bourbon, Simó added a quarter-ounce of 2:1 demerara syrup, two dashes of Angostura, two dashes Regan’s orange bitters, one dash Bittermens mole bitters and an orange twist. The tasters thought the drink spicy and complex, with the sugar content and mouth-feel right on the money.

Other cocktails approvingly sampled were Phil Ward’s mix of Rittenhouse Rye, 2:1 demerara syrup and four dashes of Angostura, and Marrero’s recipe of Bulleit bourbon, one teaspoon rich demerara syrup, three dashes of Angostura and two dashes of orange bitters.

Confronted with so many well-wrought examples of the drink, it seemed certain that the good old Old-Fashioned would continue its current winning streak as one of America’s favorite cocktails.

Referencing the drink’s amazing popularity, Marrero quipped, “It’s the vodka-soda of today.” She meant it as a compliment.

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