A 19th-century cocktail that got a big renaissance in the 2010s (thanks to its status as Don Draper's drink of choice on "Mad Men"), the Old Fashioned is a minimalist creation that's flawless in its simplicity. The recipe only calls for three ingredients: whiskey, Angostura bitters, and sugar. This short list means that each element of an Old Fashioned must be carefully selected and vetted for flavor, and because whiskey is the predominant spirit, you'll want to make sure that you're choosing a whiskey that's well-suited to this task. We asked a group of professional bartenders to recommend their favorite whiskies for Old Fashioneds, and they named these 10 smooth and flavorful spirits.
WhistlePig 10-Year Straight Rye
Several of the bartenders we consulted selected rye whiskies as the best options for Old Fashioneds, pointing to the spicy, peppery notes associated with this spirit style. Wine and beverage director Benjamin Appleby of Abe & Louie's in Boston, Massachusetts particularly favors WhistlePig 10-Year Straight Rye, describing it as, "...robust, with lots of vanilla and spice notes that are enhanced and not hidden by the other ingredients in the Old Fashioned."
Middle West Dark Pumpernickel Rye
"The best whiskey for an Old Fashioned is a higher proof rye whiskey, preferably above 45% ABV," says whiskey expert Christopher Sebastian of Blind Barrels. He goes on to recommend Middle West Dark Pumpernickel Rye, telling us that "Middle West Dark Pumpernickel Rye is a phenomenal choice; at 48% ABV, it holds up well to being stirred with ice, and the flavor notes of brown sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and molasses provide an amazing balance to the sugar and bitters of the cocktail."
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye
An American rye whiskey with balanced flavor and a clean finish, Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye is the Old Fashioned spirit of choice for creative director/co-owner Tanner Agar of Apothecary in Dallas, Texas, who says that "Wild Turkey Rare Breed Rye is a very pure expression of the true grain flavor without having a lot of the residual sugars typical in American whiskey. This makes it a perfect candidate for the additions of an Old Fashioned."
Angel's Envy Finished Rye
"I would recommend Angel's Envy Finished Rye, which has become one of my favorite whiskeys," says co-owner/beverage manager Kursten Berry of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta, Georgia. "It really blew me away the first time I tried it. It has such a great flavor of its own that it doesn't need too much to amplify it, so it makes it an ideal whiskey for an Old Fashioned. The flavors are amazing on the palate and it has such a warm richness and body to it. It's aged up to 18 months in Caribbean rum casks and has notes of maple, gingerbread, and vanilla that truly make this rye taste like dessert in a glass, even at 100 proof. Add in a little extra sugar and some Angostura bitters, and you have the perfect after-dinner Old Fashioned."
Angel's Envy Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Based in Louisville, Kentucky, the Angel's Envy distillery produces both rye and bourbon. Lead bartender Luis Nunez of Backstreet Cafe in Houston, Texas likes to use Angel's Envy Bourbon in his Old Fashioneds because "this bourbon is just well-rounded. While being on the higher end of call whiskies, this can be obtained fairly consistently, which is worth its weight in gold. Also, due to its Port wine barrel finish, it pairs well with almost any bitters you want to throw at it. We love using orange and Angostura bitters, but cherry, coffee or chocolate would all pair beautifully."
Redemption Rye Bourbon
Redemption Rye Bourbon combines the sweetness of bourbon with the spiciness of rye, and this balance is a beautiful fit for an Old Fashioned, according to lead bartender Oliver Sovol of Observatory 11 in New Orleans, Louisiana: "I think a bourbon with a high rye content in the mash bill is ideal for an Old Fashioned. At Observatory 11, we use Redemption Rye Whiskey because it's a solid bourbon with a lot of spice from the rye that really holds up and comes through in the cocktail. Some of the more delicate, nuanced bourbon are great sippers, but get lost in cocktails."
Maker's Mark 46
"I would say that Maker's Mark 46, with the toasted French oak, is probably one of my favorites for our style of Old Fashioned," says beverage director Scott Taylor of Harris' Restaurant in San Francisco, California. The French oak aging gives this bourbon a delicate woodsy dimension, which blends with flavors of caramel and vanilla to make for an elegant bourbon that collaborates seamlessly with Angostura bitters and orange peel in an Old Fashioned.
Treaty Oak Distilling Ghost Hill Bourbon
According to beverage director Marc Borel of Rainbow Lodge in Houston, the most popular Old Fashioned in Rainbow Lodge's cocktail repertoire is "the Texas Old Fashioned with Treaty Oak Ghost Hill Texas Bourbon. This bourbon is crafted with heirloom Texas grain from Barton Springs Mill, and it is mashed, fermented, distilled, barreled, aged for 2 years and bottled on-site at Treaty Oak Distillery in Dripping Springs, Texas. We then add a few drops of sarsaparilla bitters, also from Texas, and a piece of Texas ruby red grapefruit peel."
"Since moving to Tennessee, I have had the opportunity to taste a large variety of local and regional whiskeys. A couple of months ago, I took a trip down to Chattanooga and tried Chattanooga Whiskey and absolutely fell in love with it," says food & beverage director Richard Iannone of The Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tennessee. "Their bourbon is distilled with a highly malted mash bill, giving the whiskey notes of brown sugar, leather and oak, which I personally think makes for a great base when building a classic Old Fashioned. I always have a bottle sitting on my bar at home."
Hooten Young 12-Year American Whiskey
A blended American whiskey, Hooten Young 12-Year American Whiskey is produced by a cigar company, which makes sense when you consider its rich flavor notes and deep leather-and-musk aromas. "Hooten Young's American Whiskey is a 12 year old, 92 proof, MGP (whiskey drinkers will know what that means!) whiskey that is smooth, with notes of maple, vanilla, ripe apple, and a long smooth finish," says marketing director Leah Keggi of Blue Ridge Spirits & Wine.
Ready to make your own Old-Fashioned Cocktail? Check out our recipe for a Maple Old-Fashioned which features maple syrup as the sweetener.
READ: The 7 Best Bourbon Whiskey Brands to Pair with BBQ, According to Master Distillers