That was a very basic recipe, no fruit, no frills, no garnish- and so it is a great starting point for experimentation and finding your own preferences.
First, if you want to do some experimentation without falling over drunk, you may want to cut the base recipe in half, or better yet, find a friend to split the drinks and compare ideas on tastes.
The first few variations are pretty straightforward:
Increase or decrease the amount of sugar.
Use a different sugar (white, turbinado, demerara- I suggest avoiding commercial brown sugars).
Use a different bourbon or rye (sharper or smoother depending on your preferences)
Vary the amount of bitters, try other bitters (there are a myriad of bitters out there to try, but if you can find some Fee Brothers Black Walnut I suggest that for a great alternative to Angostura aromatics for Old Fashioneds).
I find that the aromatic bitters and sugars are balancing forces, if a drink is a little too sweet adding another dash of bitters may balance it better than adding another ounce of whiskey- but you should try it and see if you agree.
You aren’t limited to traditional sugars, try maple syrup as a sweetener. This fails more often than it succeeds in my opinion, but it can be very good. You need to use real, pure maple syrup, and match the grade to the whiskey. I generally prefer sharper and stronger whiskeys, these want grade B dark maple syrup. If you are playing with smoother whiskeys you may get away with grade A light/amber, but even there I prefer the dark. Honey is another alternative sweetener, but that is probably a post of its own- but don’t be put off by the mediocre honeyed whiskeys on the market, you can do better.
What about fruit, Jack?
One of the common Old Fashioned variants uses muddled fruit, orange and cherries. These are often served using “maraschino” cherries, which are just neutral balls of chemical and sugar laden cellulose; they are an abomination to me. The orange bits are often full wedges, complete with the bitter white pith; this is not ideal, either. It is fairly common to get these drinks with no added sugars, the orange juice and the sugar in the cherry-like objects provides the sweetening, but I think these rarely live up to their potential.
Before going down the fruit-laden drink route, I suggest trying a bit of citrus and decent sugar instead. Make the drink as previously described, but cut a decent sized chunk of orange peel and bend it tightly over the drink to release the citrus oils, then run the peel side around the rim of the glass and drop into the drink. The key to this is getting a good peel section with little or none of the white pith, a good vegetable peeler makes it easy with a little practice, a sharp knife and steady hands work well with a little more practice. The size isn’t a precise measurement, but 3/8 to 1/2 inch wide and 1 1/2 to 2 inches long is a good range. If you have used an orange with a fresh, healthy peel you’ll be amazed what a difference a small amount of citrus oil can make.
An even easier way to get some fruit complexity into they drink is to add a dash or two of orange bitters. There are a lot of different orange bitters, and they vary widely. Angostura makes an good orange bitters, but be careful with this one, it is strong and can easily overpower a drink. Fee Brothers makes a couple of West Indian Orange bitters, these are sweeter and smoother that the Angostura. One of the Fee Brothers orange bitters is aged in gin barrels, I like this one- but not for whiskey drinks, stick with the regular orange for these. There are several other orange bitters available, Regan’s is another good one and not too hard to find.
If you want to try a fruited Old Fashioned there are a couple of things I believe dramatically improve the results. First, good cherries- they are expensive, but real Luxardo Maraschino cherries are vastly better than those nasty day-glo things. If you can’t find , just use decent pitted cherries instead. For the orange, use only peeled orange segments and orange peel- avoid as much of the bitter white pith as possible. Make the Old Fashioned as previously described, except reduce the amount of sugar, and muddle in the fruit before the stirring and chilling cycle.
Next up, we’ll wander further from the classic Old Fashioned, but keep its basic structure.