While attending a virtual Old-Fashioned workshop hosted by Caribbean rum distributor Spiribam, I received the sort of advice that seems obvious in retrospect yet game changing.
It was a maxim delivered by Spiribam National Brand Ambassador Kiowa Bryan, who advised that our Rum Old-Fashioneds could be made with either a teaspoon of sugar, a quarter-ounce of simple syrup, or a half-ounce of liqueur (for the purpose of the workshop we used Clément Mahina Coco, a coconut liqueur that paired marvelously with Rhum JM V.O.). Though the event focused on rum, Bryan says that the rule applies to plain-old Whiskey Old-Fashioneds as well, which is how she first learned it while helping to open SoHo House in West Hollywood.
There Bryan learned the framework behind many classic cocktails, including Old-Fashioned variation the Fancy Free—which uses a half-ounce of Luxardo Maraschino in place of sugar or syrup—and the Monte Carlo, which employs a half-ounce of Benedictine for the same purpose. From there, Bryan felt she had a free hand to experiment, so long as the ratios were kept consistent.
“Once you have that basic structure down and memorized, you’re free to go crazy with your variations. But it always went back to the very basic ratios of certain cocktails, the Old-Fashioned being one of them,” she says.
The logic behind it is simple. Just a teaspoon of sugar in its raw form is needed to sweeten a cocktail, and the dilution of sugar with water to make a syrup bumps that quantity up to a quarter ounce. The addition of alcohol in liqueur cuts the sugar content further, hence the half-ounce.
Bryan says there may be slight variations—a higher-proof liqueur will generally have less sugar than one that is lower-proof—but the differences are small.
“I’ve been doing it for many years using that template and I’ve never really found anything to be aggressively off whenever I’ve used that basic structure,” she says.
Bryan enjoys using the liqueur rule in Old-Fashioneds where the base spirit and sweetener share a common flavor. Here are a few of her own recommendations:
Cognac + Giffard Abricot du Roussillon: “Cognac has kind of an undertone of must and stone fruitiness to it, so I found that apricot liqueurs are nice with cognac.”
Clément Rhum V.S.O.P. + Giffard Banane du Brésil: “It has a salinity to it that goes really nicely with the banana.”
Calvados + Allspice Dram: “You can use that as the sweetener, and the bitters.”
Bryan’s not afraid to experiment within the template, too. One of her favorite Rum Old-Fashioned variants is a drink of her own making dubbed the Chunky Monkey, which uses a half-ounce of banana liqueur for its sweetener, splits the spirit base between an ounce-and-a-half of aged rum and a half-ounce of oloroso sherry, and finishes with chili chocolate bitters.
“I’m switching it up a little bit … but it’s still that same template,” she says.