We’ve sipped our way through the best whiskey for Old Fashioned cocktails, so you don’t have to
As one of the oldest cocktails in history, an Old Fashioned deserves to be made properly. Originally known as the Whiskey Cocktail, it was invented in the 1800s and fast became a bartender favourite. But its popularity was its undoing and the cocktail found itself subject to many an interpretation – not always successful – prompting punters to request that the cocktail be made “the Old Fashioned way”.
Mad Men’s Don Draper helped bring the classic cocktail back into vogue in the noughties and it’s shown no sign of going anywhere since. A simple blend of sugar, water, bitters and American whiskey, this cocktail requires top-notch ingredients to allow the quality of the whiskey to shine – no messing about.
Today, you’ll find Old Fashioneds being made with various kinds of whisky – Japanese, Scotch and the whole gamut – and variations such as Rum Old Fashioneds are now often seen on bar menus. However, this cocktail is really all about whiskey. Let’s take a look at the best drop for the job.
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How to choose the best whiskey for an Old Fashioned
Let’s look at the different types
Though we do have a lot of time for different styles of whiskey – or whisky if we’re talking about the Scottish stuff – a true Old Fashioned requires American whiskey alone. American whiskies tend to be wonderfully toasty tasting and have a pronounced sweetness, along with a good whack of spice. Notes of vanilla are common and a caramel smoothness is frequent and welcome. There are a few different varieties to get to grips with, but they’re all equally delicious mixed into an Old Fashioned.
First, rye whisky. Rye whiskies must contain at least 51% rye in their mashbill in order to be called so and tend to be on the spicier and more complex side of American whiskey. Famous brands such as Sazerac and Cacoctin Creek Roundstone Rye fall into this category, and are both good examples of a well-made rye.
The other main variety is Bourbon, which is rather an umbrella term. Bourbon began life when Scottish and Irish immigrants began distilling farmed grain in Kentucky in the late 18th century. Today, it must contain at least 51% corn (other grains used include rye, barley and wheat), be aged in charred oak barrels and cannot include any flavours or colouring. The higher the corn content of the mash, the sweeter the whiskey, usually. To be labelled as a Kentucky Bourbon, the whiskey must also be distilled and aged in the state, which is famed for its superior corn-growing conditions, along with limestone-rich soils. These are said to help filter unwanted iron from its waters, leading to a deliciously sweet and pure tasting whiskey. Tennessee whiskey is another variety, which refers to whiskies that have also been filtered through its signature sugar maple charcoal, leading to a clean, super-smooth spirit.
Most American whiskies use a blend of spirits to achieve a well-balanced, crowd-pleasing and harmonious flavour, but artisanal whiskey makers and many of the big brands will also produce single barrel versions, too. Expect single barrel whiskies to be more pronounced in a particular style – so perhaps a bigger emphasis on cinnamon or minty-tasting notes.
How much should I spend?
It depends on how much you like your whiskey. In general, it’s best to budget up to £40 to secure a seriously good whiskey for the best-tasting Old Fashioned. There are plenty of brilliant bottles to be had around this price point across the Kentucky Bourbon and rye categories. You’ll pay more for aged examples, though this may be an unnecessary expense unless you’re planning to sip these straight on occasion, too. Single barrels will also set you back more, but as with any premium spirit, the sky’s the limit if you really want to splash the cash.
How we test whiskey for Old Fashioneds
We know the only way to find the best whiskey for an Old Fashioned is with a thorough taste test. Although we want to find the right tipple for this classic cocktail, it’s still important to try each one neat in order to judge their straight aroma and flavour profile. We make notes on each bottle, and also take ageing into consideration during this process, before swirling them into Old Fashioneds for a second round of tasting. Here, we’re testing how well each whiskey works in the cocktail – what new notes and flavours might appear after its introduction to sugar syrup, bitters and citrus.
After whittling down our list, we also enlist a separate panel of taste testers and record their verdicts. Whiskey, like any comestible, is somewhat subjective, so we aim to provide a wide range of stellar tasting whiskies to suit a variety of palates and preferences. Finally, we consider value, craftsmanship and the brand’s history in order to arrive at our final scores, giving you a list of reliably brilliant whiskies next time the urge for an Old Fashioned comes around.
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The best whiskey for Old Fashioned you can buy in 2023
1. Eagle Rare 10 Year Old Bourbon Whiskey: The best aged Bourbon
Price: £35 | Buy now from Tesco
This is a multi-award-winning whiskey from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, where Bourbon has been made for 200 years. It’s also the only Bourbon to win five Double Gold medals at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition. And we can see why –it’s a fabulously aged Kentucky Straight Bourbon with the signature sweetness you’d expect from the category, but with plenty of complexity to keep things interesting.
A rounded, moreish drop with notes of leather, charred oak, a twist of orange zest and a long, honeyed finish – this whiskey is aromatic and tastes far more expensive than its price tag. Sippable alone and fantastic in an Old Fashioned, we love it.
Key details – ABV: 45%; Size: 70cl
2. Four Roses Small Batch Select: The best small batch whiskey
Price: £58 | Buy now from The Whisky Exchange
Here’s another Kentucky Straight Bourbon and, despite being worlds apart in flavour from the Eagle Rare, it’s just as delicious. Crafted from six unique Bourbons from the ten made at the distillery, then aged for six years, the Four Roses whiskey maker has some serious skills.
Aromas of sweet cinnamon and vanilla on the nose give way to an abundance of stone fruit, red berries and a bit of sticky toffee reined in by white pepper and a little bit of menthol on the palate. This whiskey is a light and bright dream of a drink and we enjoyed with a twist of lemon peel instead of the traditional orange to maintain the freshness, but you do you.
Key details – ABV: 52%; Size: 70cl
3. New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon: The best all-rounder
Price: £55 | Buy now from The Whisky Exchange
New by name, new(ish) by nature for this Bourbon, as the New Riff distillery has only been going since 2014. This is its first release and comprises a four-year-old unchill filtered mash of 65% corn with a good helping of rye at 30%.
We were happy to find a smattering of spice alongside the expected sweet, corn profile with rich with buttery baking flavours. There are also warming hints of cinnamon, which mingle with silky vanilla, nutmeg and plenty of mace. We think this is the perfect marriage between Bourbon and rye and is just begging for a spot in your drinks cabinet.
Key details – ABV: 50%; Size: 75cl
Catcoctin Creek Roundstone Rye 80: The best rye whiskey
Price: £39 | Buy now from Native Spirits Online
This Catcoctin Creek Roundstone is a classic example of rye and very lovely with it too. Made from single barrel whiskey distilled in Virginia, it has an impressive 100% rye mashbill for proper grown-up spicing.
Its four years in oak casks has led to a delicious amount of woodiness, alongside bags of pepper and mixed spice for a classy sipping or mixing whiskey. There’s sugar along with spice and all the other things that are nice about this whiskey. Think butterscotch pudding, banoffee and vanilla custard, which work beautifully in a classic Old Fashioned.
Key details – ABV: 40%; Size: 70cl
5. Jack Daniels Single Barrel Rye: The best new rye
Price: £58 | Buy now from The Whisky Exchange
A surprise entry here from Jack Daniels, who has released its first new mash bill in 150 years in this Single Barrel Rye. Its premium price point reflects the difference from any of the brand’s standard releases and the quality of this compared to its usual stuff is miles apart. There’s lots of smoky toasted oak on the nose, which continues through on the palate, along with all the sit-up-and-listen spicing that you’d hope for in a 70% mash bill. But it’s not all big shouty flavours – we also get hints of gently caramelised orange, fruit cake and a smattering of nut in there too. The finish is ever so slightly too harsh to make it a stand-out sipping whiskey, but in an Old Fashioned, this really comes into its own.
Key details – ABV: 45%; Size: 70cl