So, you’ve decided you want to level up your Old Fashioned game, but what bitters should you use to make the best Old Fashioned? I’m not talking brands here, because I’m obviously a bit partial to The Bitter Housewife. I’m talking about what flavor or style of bitters to use and focusing on just a Whiskey Old Fashioned.
A lot of recipes just list bitters, with nothing specific named. Totally not helpful if you don’t already have a favorite. There’s also a ton of recipes that call out Angostura Bitters (which are also considered aromatic bitters) because those are not only the most well known brand, but also admittedly the easiest to find. That does not make them the best choice, it just makes them an option. You might also hear bartenders who say Orange bitters are the best choice for a Whiskey Old Fashioned.
So what do you choose? Honestly, I say you choose what you like. After all the best drink is the one you enjoy. But I realize that sometimes you really do want a little guidance, so let’s break it down.
When a recipe simply refers to bitters, they most likely mean an aromatic style bitters which tend to have baking spices (like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice), a little dried fruit (like cherries, raisins, or even citrus peel), and of course some bittering agents (like gentian root or chincona bark). Angostura is an aromatic bitters, but lean heavily toward cloves and dried cherries.
I crafted our Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters (the name kind of says it all) to be what I thought were the perfect bitters for an Old Fashioned. Ours lean more on cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg with only a touch of cloves. There’s no citrus peel, but we do use dried bing cherries which are super sweet and almost black in color. There are actually 16 different botanicals in our Aromatic bitters, for a warmly spiced, layered flavored that I think is perfect for a Rye Old Fashioned.
From one aromatic style bitters to another you will get different flavor profiles, which in turn give you very different drinks. So try out a few to find what you like best.
But what about the Orange bitters? Orange bitters also tend toward the warmly spiced, some more than others. Some are made with fresh peel, like ours, that give you a bright, zesty orange flavor with tons of aroma. Others use dried orange peel for a subtler orange flavor. Orange and whiskey go great together as shown by the often used orange twist to garnish an Old Fashioned. So if you like a brighter, less baking spice flavor for your Old Fashioned, orange bitters might be just what you need.
There’s also no reason you shouldn’t use two different bitters to get exactly what you’re looking for. My husband is a fan of equal parts Aromatic and Orange bitters, especially because he can be lazy and forgo the orange twist and still have a good drink. Sometimes I use both Aromatic and Cardamom for even more warm, earthy, spicy flavor.
The best bitters for an Old Fashioned are the ones that make what you think is the best tasting drink. Try out a few, be adventurous or stay classic. There is no right answer, just endless variations.