The Old-Fashioned is having a bright moment in the spotlight lately—which is amusing on some levels, as it’s the original cocktail recipe, dating back more than 200 years. Containing just whiskey, sugar, bitters, and an orange peel, the Old-Fashioned cocktail is dead simple. It’s the epitome of the stripped-down bones of nearly every cocktail recipe ratio there is: spirits + sweet + bitter/sour.
While some purists find it unfathomable to use anything other than a straight bourbon or rye in an Old-Fashioned, there’s no cocktail god who ordained the use of only whiskey. In fact—hold on to your ice cubes—an 1862 recipe for an Old-Fashioned cocktail from none other than legendary bartender Jerry Thomas specifies Holland Gin. So as you can see, the Old-Fashioned template is ripe for experimentation. While many different authoritative recipes exist, each slightly different, I always start with this template:
Old Fashioned Recipe
2 oz spirit
0.25 oz 1:1 simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir ingredients over ice. Strain into chilled Old-Fashioned glass with one large ice cube. Express orange peel over glass.
Some folks prefer to muddle sugar, water, and bitters together, rather than using simple syrup. To each her own. Also, note that we shall brook no commentary here from the vocal Wisconsin crowd with their eclectic version that muddles orange slices and maraschino cherries with brandy, topped with 7-Up. Again, to each her own, but… that’s a different drink.
With just three, simple, easily-understood ingredients, even the most novice amateur bartender can feel confident in swapping out one ingredient for another. Out of Angostura bitters? Substitute some amazing chocolate bitters. No simple syrup or white table sugar on hand? Try some spiced Sirop de Canne from Martinique.
Substitutions are great starting points, but experimenting with different spirits is the power move. For as flavorful and rich as bourbons and ryes are, their core flavor profiles don’t deviate drastically from brand to brand. In contrast, the huge diversity of rum styles offers a far broader palate to paint with. However, for the enthusiastic novice, it may not be obvious which rums will work particularly well, but don’t fret: I’m here to help.
The Best Rum for Old-Fashioneds
First, let’s eliminate, or at least discourage, certain styles of rum for use in Old-Fashioneds. Unaged or lightly aged and filtered rums like Bacardi Carta Blanca or Captain Morgan White Rum don’t have the heft to stand out in a spirt-forward drink like an Old-Fashioned. Remember, the sweet and bitter flavors in an Old-Fashioned should be subtle accents to the spirit, not run all over it. You need a rum with deep flavor reserves.
Ideally, a top tier Old-Fashioned uses a robust rum with enough age that you wouldn’t hesitate to consume it neat. Pot stilled rums or pot/column blends are great starting points—think of rums made in Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Lucia as prime examples of these characteristics. Consider using rums like Appleton Rare Blend from Jamaica, Mount Gay XO and Doorly’s 12 from Barbados, and Chairman’s Reserve from St. Lucia. All make great cocktails, and each clocks in under $40.
Other examples of high-end rums at this price level include expressions like El Dorado 12 from Guyana, Cartavio XO from Peru, and Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva from Venezuela. While each is packed with flavor and a perennial crowd favorite, be aware that many of these “luxury” rums contain a significant amount of added sweetening agents. Thus, if you use typical Old-Fashioned recipe ratios, you may end up with a sweeter concoction than desired. (The Reserva Exclusiva—with 40g/liter of sugar—is so sweet that some rum experts joke that merely adding bitters makes it an Old-Fashioned.)
While heavy rums with pot distillate are an ideal starting point for use in an Old-Fashioned, many column distilled rums stand up with a strong backbone thanks to their extended aging. These rums, such as Havana Club 7, Brugal 1888, and Bacardi 8, tend to be from Latin American countries and get a lot of vanilla and oak flavors from their barrels. If funky Martinique and Guadeloupe agricole rhums are your cup of tea, consider something like Clément VSOP or Clément XO.
All things being equal, look for rums a bit above 80-proof but not necessarily cask-strength monsters. Because of the ice, Old-Fashioneds tend to dilute significantly unless you drink them quickly. A rum at only 80-proof withers quickly under the initial dilution from stirring with ice, and only gets weaker as it sits in the glass. A 90-proof rum stands up better here, and those at 100- to 110-proof work superbly. Fans of American rum should absolutely try an Old-Fashioned with Privateer Rum’s 115-proof Navy Yard, quite possibly the best value in American rum today. There’s no need to go overboard with something like Lemon Hart 151, however. Your liver may never forgive you.
Finally, unless money is no object, don’t bother reaching for super expensive, $100-plus bottles like Appleton Joy or the latest Velier cask-strength, limited edition beauty. Yes, there are rum-heads that revel in this sort of thing, but as someone just venturing into a Rum Old-Fashioned, plenty of top notch variations can be had with rums in the $30 to $50 range.
Now, get out there and start ordering Rum Old-Fashioneds at your local watering hole or mixing them up at home. We’ll never besmirch the good name of whiskey, but hey, variety is the spice of life.