The Best Bitters To Use In An Old Fashioned, According To A Mixologist

The old fashioned has been stirred and sipped for centuries, and for good reason. A trifecta of bourbon or regular whiskey, sugar, and bitters, it's a simple cocktail to prepare and highlights all of the rich goodness of the liquor. Classic versions of the drink often feature aromatic bitters like Peychaud's or Angostura, but there's no shortage of innovative ways to mix up an old fashioned. We had a chance to talk with Jessica King, co-owner and operator of Lilou, Brother Wolf, and Osteria Stella in Knoxville, Tennessee, to get her expert opinion on the best bitters to dress up this drink.

Besides classic Angostura, King heartily recommends walnut bitters. "The nutty quality adds a depth of complexity that I find hard to beat," she says. "The walnut skin, mildly bitter in itself, seems to perfectly complement nearly any aged spirit." 

The reason for using bitters in the drink is to create a flavorful and balanced beverage, and walnut bitters can do just that. While there are various brands available, their profiles are all (obviously) nutty, but might boast other flavors that range from baking spices to molasses and even root beer. All you need is a couple of drops to mix up a more complex old fashioned with a hint of bitter, slightly spicy, and lightly fresh flavor.

Other tips for making the best old fashioned

Once you've chosen the best bitters to transform your whiskey cocktail, it's time to address the whiskey itself. Mixologists can recommend plenty of whiskeys for an old fashioned, and while your choice should be high-quality, you needn't break the bank. When looking for a whiskey that will mix well, consider the fact that the old fashioned uses sugar, so a spirit that is already on the sweet side might not be your best bet. Try a balanced bourbon or a rye whiskey — the latter's tendency to be slightly spicy will mingle well with the sweet sugar and the flavors of the walnut bitters.

If you're looking to step away from the conventional way of making the cocktail, experiment with other spirits, too. Like whiskey, brandy has notes of vanilla and caramel, making it a solid substitute. Aged rum is another option that can create a nuanced flavor profile that's also slightly spiced up.

Finally, when it comes to garnishes, the classic choice for this cocktail is an orange peel, but maraschino cherries are also common. Jessica King takes it up a notch at Brother Wolf, using both a Luxardo maraschino cherry (a highly-quality brand that's the gold standard for cocktails) and an expressed orange peel. Expressing simply means to twist the peel and release its oils, bringing out its citrus aroma and zest. Fruity and slightly nutty cherries are a great complement to the whiskey.