The Old Fashioned is an outstanding cocktail and the post-prohibition world’s best attempt at making a classic Whiskey Cocktail with what was still available after prohibition had killed off so many ingredients and techniques. Before people started calling this an Old Fashioned, it was just a Whiskey Cocktail. Prohibition brought about a massive paradigm shift in the way cocktails were made. Prior to the ratification of the 18th amendment and the start of prohibition lightly flavored high quality spirits were popular among many drinkers. You can identify these vintage style American cocktails by a couple ounces of a base spirit that is lightly flavored with no more than 2 or 3 dashes of other flavorful ingredients and just enough sweetness to cut the spirits burn. With the start of prohibition in 1917 the quality of most liquor greatly diminished and high quality spirits were priced out of most peoples range, and most trained bartenders left the profession and got jobs that were not illicit. Suddenly over night there was a loss of quality product and knowledge. The cocktails that gained in popularity were the highball and sour style cocktails. Not to say they didn’t exist before this but prohibition had made them more popular. highballs and sours had the benefit of being slightly easier to make and having larger amounts of strong flavored ingredients that helped mask the taste of poor quality spirits. The epitome of this being the tiki drink. Which was created during prohibition and saw the first tiki bar open in Hollywood CA in 1933, immediately once prohibition ended. If an older individual wanted to order a whiskey cocktail like they remembered having prior to prohibition they would need to ask for a whiskey cocktail made in the old fashion. Keep in mind, prohibition lasted for 16 years, a person turning 21 in 1917 was now 37. An entire drinking generation had grown up not having access to these kind of cocktails. If you are curious to learn more about the predecessor to this cocktail then I would check out the Whiskey Cocktail
The Bourbon’s oak and caramel flavors are still the most forward flavors but the Angostura bitters provides a dark heavy, spicy, bark, earthy flavor to the drink. The simple syrup is just enough to cut the sharpness of the bourbon, but not to make this a sweet drink.
The Most Important Ingredient
The most important ingredient in an Old Fashioned is the bourbon you use. The Bitters are important too but the simple syrup and bitters are still subtle enough that they add flavor to the bourbon rather than over power the drink. You also don’t want to pick a bourbon that is too mellow or one that is too strong. If its too smooth then the bitters will over whelm and you loose the bourbon taste. If it’s too sharp then you’re trying to slowly sip and enjoy a bourbon not meant to be sipped slowly and fully tasted. A sharper spirit like that would be better suited for other cocktails with other much stronger flavors.