What used to be an old-timey way to make a spirit more drinkable is still a way to make a spirit more drinkable. To make an Old Fashioned cocktail (hereafter OF) is simple: you begin with about 2 ounces of your favorite spirit, you add a dash or two of cocktail bitters, and a heavy dash of sugar syrup. The peel of a citrus fruit is often added. You stir with ice, and you drink.
The OF is way to celebrate a spirit; its bitters and sugar (and sometimes citrus peel) are a way of seasoning a spirit without masking it, much like you'd do with food.
For example, roasted chicken may be delicious, but few would argue that roasted chicken can't be elevated with just a bit of garlic and herbs; steak benefits from a bit of salt and maybe even pepper; many types of fish benefit from a squeeze of lemon; cooked broccoli benefits from a bit of melted butter. Many spirits benefit from a simple seasoning as well.
Traditional OFs are made with brown spirits along with Angostura aromatic bitters. When it comes to lighter spirits, there are plenty of bitters options as well, like the next two most popular types, orange bitters and Peychaud's bitters(which is a deep red bitters and tastes of muted anise). Other types include lemon, grapefruit, cherry, peach, rhubarb, celery, chocolate... and then there are interesting blends such as whiskey barrel, tiki, creole, and the list goes on. Yours truly has created his own coffee bitters and floral bitters, even. Cocktail Kingdom remains one of the authorities on purchasing bitters on the web.
The Kaiser Penguin humorously held a small contest to see which booze bloggers had the most types of bitters in their possession... be sure to check the comments in the post to see the tally.
The fun part begins when you start creating combinations for your OF. Which bitters should or could go with which spirits? A few examples: chocolate bitters with brandy; grapefruit bitters with tequila; celery bitters with gin; tiki bitters with aged rum; orange bitters with white rum; lemon bitters with pisco.
Your bitters is not the only dimension with which you can be creative for your OF. There are tons of different types of syrups that you can buy and even more that you can make on your own. Using a flavored syrup is a way to add another layer of complexity to your drink.
Below are examples of syrups which can be found in your local grocery store, in the coffee and pancake sections. While you may chuckle at the idea of using such syrups in a cocktail, realize that a syrup is a syrup, so long as it uses high quality and natural ingredients. A little research on the internet reveals great places to buy syrups with a wide selection of flavors.
But be warned: the more complex your spirit's flavor is, the fewer layers of flavor it needs on top of it. It may be a fine idea, for example, to make a Famous Grouse Scotch OF with Whiskey Barrel bitters and clove flavored syrup, but your glass of Balvenie 12 may not need such a distracting mask over its face.
Don't be hypocritical here. If you have no problem with the layering of flavors in your bitters (there are over 40 in Angostura alone), then how could you be against adding another flavor via syrup, if you knew it was of good quality? If it was perfectly acceptable to add a flavored bitters to your spirits, then why would a flavored syrup be too much?
Be open minded when thinking about syrups for possible OFs. On a whim one day I picked up a bottle of Margie's banana syrup from my local grocery store. It's opaque and pulpy... almost like a cross between banana syrup and banana purée. My new favorite way to drink rum is mixed with this stuff, and it makes a killer OF.
I also picked up some cola syrup from a local Williams Sonoma. Its intended use is to be mixed with seltzer to make your own cola, but I mix it with spirits with great results. Even a syrup as powerful as my passionfruit syrup can be mixed into an OF. You can also make a syrup out of a favorite spice or tea by boiling (or simply soaking) it in water and mixing it with sugar.
Dave of the Sugar House Blog gives us a fine example of a good combination: mezcal, Peychaud's bitters, and cucumber syrup. Dr. Bamboo tweets his surprise on how well his ginger-mint syrup works in a whiskey OF... well I'm certainly not surprised! The combinations are endless, and you have the ability build your favorite flavors all into one cocktail.
OFs usually have a peel of citrus fruit for a garnish. If you really start getting wild with your OF flavor combinations, you may find that citrus peel isn't always welcome. When you have an unorthodox OF, you can have an unorthodox garnish as well. Here, I made an apple brandy OF with a cinnamon stick garnish, because I felt that citrus wouldn't go well with it.. You can always forgo the garnish as well.
Here are some of the wilder OFs I've made recently. I hope these inspire you to deviate from normal simple syrup and aromatic bitters, and explore the blank canvass that is the OF.
Rum & Cola Old Fashioned
Sonoma Cola Syrup
Fee's Whiskey Barrel bitters
(As I've said before, lime twists/peels are best acquired from a hard lime if you can manage to choose one along with the soft ones that you pick out at the store for juicing.)
Gin Old Fashioned
Red Zinger Syrup
Red Zinger Syrup
Light Rum Old Fashioned
Margie's Banana Syrup
Jack Rose Old Fashioned