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What is the difference between whiskey Old Fashioned sour and sweet?

The Old Fashioned is a classic whiskey cocktail that has been around since the 19th century. It is one of the most popular whiskey drinks and also one of the most versatile, with many variations available. The core ingredients in an Old Fashioned are whiskey, bitters, sugar, and water. The main difference between the two main types – sour and sweet – is in the type and amount of sugar used.

In a whiskey Old Fashioned sour, lemon or lime juice is used instead of simple syrup as the source of sour flavor. The sour Old Fashioned has a tangy, tart taste profile. In a sweet Old Fashioned, simple syrup, sugar cube or other sweetener is used, creating a smoother, sweeter flavor.

Beyond the sour/sweet distinction, Old Fashioneds can vary significantly based on the preferred whiskey style, other flavorings added and preparation method. By adjusting these elements, a wide range of Old Fashioned experiences can be created – from fruity to spicy to botanical and beyond.

Whiskey Styles for Old Fashioneds

The base spirit used has a major impact on the final character of an Old Fashioned. Traditionally made with American whiskey, particularly bourbon, Old Fashioneds can also highlight the flavors of rye whiskey, Irish whiskey, Japanese whiskey or Scotch whisky. Some typical Old Fashioned whiskey options include:

Bourbon – Sweet and oaky flavor profile, moderate alcohol. Makes a mellow, smooth Old Fashioned. Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey 101 are popular bourbons.

Rye – Spicy and dry, with robust rye grain flavor. Adds a spicy kick to an Old Fashioned. Rittenhouse Rye, Old Overholt and Bulleit Rye work well.

Irish – Light and approachable with honeyed sweetness. Jameson and Tullamore D.E.W. are common Irish whiskeys for Old Fashioneds.

Scotch – Smoky and malty depth from aged single malts. Less common but peaty scotches like Laphroaig add unique flavor.

Japanese – Soft and complex from Japanese whisky. Try Toki or Nikka Coffey Grain.

The intensity of the whiskey flavor usually gets dialed up in an Old Fashioned compared to drinking it neat or on the rocks. So bolder, higher proof whiskeys often work best.

Sour Old Fashioned Recipe

A whiskey sour Old Fashioned uses lemon or lime juice in place of simple syrup to provide tart, citrusy sour flavor. This is a very classic Old Fashioned recipe that dates back over a century.


– 2 oz bourbon or rye whiskey

– 1/4 oz simple syrup

– 2-4 dashes Angostura bitters

– 1/2 oz fresh lemon or lime juice

– Orange twist garnish

– Luxardo cherry garnish


1. Add the bourbon or rye, simple syrup, bitters and lemon/lime juice to a mixing glass with ice.

2. Stir until well-chilled, about 20-30 seconds.

3. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube.

4. Garnish with an orange twist and Luxardo cherry.

The lemon or lime juice should be freshly squeezed right before making the drink for maximum bright, tart flavor. A Demerara simple syrup made with Demerara sugar will add extra depth, but regular simple syrup also works. The bitters and citrus balance the sweetness of the whiskey and simple syrup.

Sweet Old Fashioned Recipe

A sweet Old Fashioned uses a teaspoon of simple syrup or a sugar cube to sweeten the cocktail instead of sour citrus. The exact amount of sweetener balances against the whiskey and bitters to taste.


– 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey

– 1 teaspoon simple syrup or 1 sugar cube

– 3-4 dashes Angostura bitters

– Orange twist garnish

– Luxardo cherry garnish


1. Place sugar cube (or simple syrup) in an Old Fashioned glass and soak with 2-3 dashes of bitters.

2. Add a splash of water or club soda and muddle gently to dissolve sugar.

3. Fill glass with ice cubes.

4. Add rye or bourbon whiskey.

5. Stir gently 20-30 seconds to chill and combine.

6. Express orange twist over drink and use as garnish along with a Luxardo cherry.

The sweet Old Fashioned allows the whiskey flavor to take center stage, with just enough sweetness to soften the drink. A straight bourbon like Elijah Craig or Maker’s Mark makes a classic sweet Old Fashioned.

Other Old Fashioned Flavorings

Beyond the core sweet or sour recipe, Old Fashioneds can contain many other flavorings to create unique taste experiences:

Fruit – Fruit juices, purees, slices or preserves add flavor complexity. Popular fruits include orange, cherry, lemon, grapefruit and peach.

Herbs & Spices – Herbs like mint or rosemary and spices like cinnamon or cardamom complement whiskey’s flavor.

Other Liqueurs – Small amounts of flavored liqueurs enhance the cocktail’s taste. Options include curaçao, maraschino, elderflower or scotch-based liqueurs.

Advanced Techniques – Advanced bartending techniques like fat washing or smoking can infuse the Old Fashioned with new flavors.

Fruity Old Fashioned Ideas

– Cherry Old Fashioned – Muddle 5 cherries with simple syrup and bitters.

– Peach Old Fashioned – Add 1/2 oz peach schnapps. Garnish with peach slice.

– Orange Old Fashioned – Use orange bitters and garnish with orange twist.

– Grapefruit Old Fashioned – Use grapefruit bitters and juice. Garnish with grapefruit.

Spiced & Herbal Old Fashioned Ideas

– Cinnamon Old Fashioned – Add 2-3 dashes cinnamon tincture or bitters.

– Cardamom Old Fashioned – Muddle 3-4 cracked cardamom pods with simple syrup.

– Mint Old Fashioned – Muddle 5-6 mint leaves with simple syrup.

– Rosemary Old Fashioned – Muddle a rosemary sprig with simple syrup.

Old Fashioned Preparation Methods

There are several ways to build an Old Fashioned, each giving a somewhat different experience:

Stirred – The traditional preparation, stirring gently dilutes and chills the cocktail. More refined texture.

Shaken – Shaking creates a frothier texture and more dilution. Alters mouthfeel.

Built in the Glass – Building directly in the serving glass is quick but less diluted. Boozier punch.

Muddled Fruit/Herbs – Muddling releases more fresh fruit or herb flavors. Extracts essential oils.

Large Ice Cube – Serving over a large cube gives a slower dilution rate. Keeps whiskey taste robust.

There is no absolute right or wrong way to make an Old Fashioned – just different options based on personal taste. Try several and see what you most enjoy.

Comparing Old Fashioned to Other Whiskey Cocktails

The Old Fashioned’s focus on spirit, sugar, water and bitters sets it apart from other popular whiskey drinks:

Cocktail Main Ingredients Flavor Profile
Old Fashioned Whiskey, sugar, bitters Spirit-forward, moderately sweet
Manhattan Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters Balanced sweetness and spice
Whiskey Sour Whiskey, lemon juice, sugar Tart citrus sourness
Mint Julep Whiskey, mint, sugar Cool mint brightness

The minimal Old Fashioned focuses on the distilled spirit, with just a touch of sweetness and bitterness added. Vermouth, juice and other ingredients play a larger role in other whiskey cocktails.


While Old Fashioneds may contain only a few core ingredients – whiskey, sugar and bitters – the possibilities for variation are nearly endless. The choice of whiskey style makes a major impact, but so do preparation method, types of sweeteners and inclusion of fruit, spices or other flavorings.

In the sweet versus sour debate, both have their passionate fans. The sweet version brings out the distillate flavors, while sour adds a bracing counterpoint. Beyond that division, creativity and personal taste preferences will shape each bartender’s ideal Old Fashioned recipe.

No matter how it’s prepared, the Old Fashioned endures as one of the quintessential whiskey cocktails. When made with care using quality spirits and ingredients, it’s a true classic that allows whiskey to shine.