In Food + Drink

Where To Find Australia’s Best Old Fashioned

Brought to you by Maker's Mark

Happy hour is short. Use it wisely.

Whether you’re a whiskey nut, cocktail connoisseur, mixology enthusiast, or just really wish you were Don Draper, chances are you’ve come across a fair share of Old Fashioneds in your time.

Revered as one of the world’s most popular and enduring mixed drinks, the Old Fashioned is hard to miss on any decent cocktail list. As one of the most oft ordered choices in the best bars all over the world, this beloved whiskey-based beverage has the ingredients of legendary tipples: simplicity, good liquor, and a solid mythology behind it.

How old is the Old Fashioned? In short: it’s pretty darn old. The drink is actually synonymous with the ever mention of the word ‘cocktail’ – this, in 1806, in The Balance, and Columbian Repository, which defined the drink as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters” (in essence, an Old Fashioned). Locals in the old American West embraced the new cocktail trend, and whiskey being the prime liquor choice.

From new to Old: the rise of the ‘whiskey cocktail’

Maker's Mark Old Fashioned

Photo: Maker’s Mark

It took some decades and a few key historical events before the ‘new’ whiskey drink scored its ‘Old’ status. With the onset of the American Civil War, fancy cocktails had become a less attainable luxury throughout the bulk of the US. During the reconstruction era that followed, northern entrepreneurs began opening bars in the south, concocting whiskey cocktails the northern way, with garnishes, cherries and the like. Unaccustomed to such northern flourishes, southern locals began to ask: “can’t we just make it the ‘old fashioned’ way?”

That’s the legend anyway. Specific props go to Louisville, Kentucky barkeep James E. Pepper, who was known for whipping up his whiskey drinks the old way at the local ‘Pendennis Club’ around 1880. Pepper later took the recipe with him to New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar, which also lays claims to the drink’s official birthplace.

Whatever the case, as it was 150 years ago, the Old Fashioneds appeal lies in its simplicity: a lump of sugar, a little water, a couple of licks of Angostura bitters, ice, lemon peel and a slug of decent whiskey – a refreshingly frank list in a world of complicated, and ever evolving mixological concoctions.

Yet despite such elementary ingredients, not all Old Fashioneds are the same –  and it’s not just to do with the type of whiskey in the mix. It takes a bartender with nous, skill and the right amount of panache to pull off the perfect blend.

So how’s it done? And where can we find the best ones? To answer that, we chatted to some of Australia’s most respected bartenders and industry insiders for their word on the finest old-styles in the country – and what makes them so good.

The Best of the best

An Old Fashioned at Chica Bonita CBD, Sydney

An Old Fashioned at Chica Bonita CBD, Sydney. Photo: Chica Bonita

For Bengt Baumgartner of Melbourne’s The European and terrace bar Siglo, there’s no better Old Fashioned than inside the dazzling confines of a beloved CBD neighbour:

“The kids at Bar Ampère really know what they’re doing when it comes to an old fashioned,” says Baumgartner. “Their skill in selecting and combining the finest ingredients makes their iteration of this classic cocktail exceptional.”

Known for its extensive list of absinthes and quality whiskeys, the Parisian verve, Russell Street’s Bar Ampère delivers a particularly conducive environment for Old Fashioned-swilling. It seems that the essence of a drink like the Old Fashioned depends on the right ambiance too.

“I feel like Old Fashioneds are one of those location-enhanced drinks,” says Justin Bruhn, Bar Manager of Meatmaiden, a bar and grill in Melbourne’s The George Building – “like how a Bintang doesn’t taste any good away from a beach in Indonesia.”

For Bruhn, the best Old Fashioned relies on the right ambiance. “Jazz bars do them pretty well. I think the Uptown Jazz Café in Fitzroy is the best I can remember. Meatmaiden do a great smoked oldy too.”

Bruhn’s Meatmaiden keeps things simple in-house: “easy on the bitters, just the right amount of sugar and don’t stir the thing down too much. You want to feel the heat of the booze at least a little bit. Also don’t assume that top shelf stuff makes a better one just because it cost you fifty bucks.”

Palmer & Co, Sydney

Palmer & Co. Photo: Merivale

Having said that, don’t avoid the good quality stuff if you’ve got it, as Jordan McMahon, bar manager of Sydney’s prohibition-era inspired cocktail den Palmer & Co will attest. A good Old Fashioned, in his opinion, should err on the right side of the quality line:

“The first step [to a good Old Fashioned] will definitely be using good whiskey. If you have a good whiskey and know what your preferences are then everything should fall into place. I get my Old Fashioned from David Ham at Palmer & Co., Lino Cappellina from Charlie Parker’s or Stephane Sae from Door Knock.”

Charlie Parker's, Sydney

Charlie Parker’s. Photo: Merivale

For all the talk of ingredient ‘purity’ when it comes to the Old Fashioned, not every expert tends to side with ‘original’ tastes. That’s certainly the case with the Old Fashioned at Melbourne’s Bar Americano, where head bartender Matt Bax can’t get enough of his own supply:

“I’m biased, but I spent a long long time developing our Old Fashioned at Bar Americano. It was a collaboration with cult fashion brand TEN PIECES, which is founded by the legend Maurice Terzini.”

A world away from the Louisville special, Bax’s Old Fashioned uses a base of rye and bourbon and is sweetened with Amaro.

“I love this drink so much, it’s the only way I drink them now.”

At Melbourne institution Campari House, Events Manager Sharon Evans is also fond of a fresh take on the old technique:

“Our head bartender Zanda makes a Makers Mark Cherry Ripe Old Fashioned in the level 2 cocktail lounge,” says Evans. Suffice to say, the original recipe – also prominent on the Campari House menu – is a tough one to beat:

“Sugar cube, splash of soda, Angostura muddle, Makers Mark, stir gently – and don’t forget the orange twist rubbed around the rim of the glass.”

(Lead image: Mathew Macquarrie via Unsplash)

Try some of Australia’s best Old Fashioneds in Sydney and Melbourne. Participating venues include: Charlie Parker’s, Palmer & Co, Campari House, Siglo and many more.

Published 12 June, 2019