Pre-prohibition cocktails and modern twists on classics

Cocktails Simplified – Whiskey

Bulleit Rye

I have some whiskey. Now what?

I remember when I first developed an interest in mixology. While I loved whiskey based cocktails, I definitely did not share the same passion for other spirits.

Yes, you should refrigerate your vermouth. More on that at another time.

I hadn’t tried one of my favorite ingredients, Campari, and wading through all the spirits, mixers, bitters and combinations seen in recipes was overwhelming. I hadn’t heard of most of them, much less even purchased ingredients more exotic than Angostura Bitters or the stale non refrigerated vermouth I had sitting in a cabinet.

I initially felt that making drinks at home was too difficult and that it would just be easier to try new recipes when out at the bar. Unfortunately, when asking for these, most bars had no idea how to make the classic cocktail requested, and even when presented with a recipe still managed to make the drink incorrectly due to lack of measuring and shaking a cocktail that should be stirred. These places preferred to shake high fructose corn syrup laden monstrosities with flavored vodka and “colorful” ingredients that would never be found in a decently made cocktail.

Disappointed with my experiences at the bar, I took a step back and thought, “what can I make at home using my whiskey and not much else?” Enter one of the most famous classic cocktails of all time, the Old Fashioned.

Old FashionedOld Fashioned

2oz Rye

1 Sugar Cube

.25oz Water

2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

Lemon Twist

A recipe doesn’t get much more simple than this: whiskey, bitters, sugar (or simple syrup) and a lemon twist; all things I had at home. What a great cocktail, somehow much more complex and layered than the recipe suggests, without any “crazy” ingredients. In fact, out of all the cocktails I’ve tried, the Old Fashioned is still one of my favorites.

Not straying too far from the Old Fashioned, we can make another cocktail called the Sazerac. For this you will need two additional ingredients: Absinthe and Peychaud’s Bitters.


2oz Rye

1 Sugar Cube

3 dashes Peychauds bitters

1 dash Angostura bitters


            Lemon twist

At its core, the Sazerac is essentially an Old Fashioned in an absinthe rinsed glass. Absinthe is also useful in other recipes, and can also be consumed on its own or prepared with water and a sugar cube. If you don’t want to buy absinthe, a less expensive bottle of anise flavored liquor will make an acceptable substitute (Pernod or Pastis, for example). You may already have something suitable in your home.

Peychaud’s bitters is usually $5-6 and now readily available at most liquor stores.

The other difference between a Sazerac and an Old Fashioned is the type of bitters used: Peychaud’s Bitters. This New Orleans bitters is classic in this cocktail and I would recommend having some on hand as it can also be employed in a variety of cocktails. You could use just Angostura in a pinch (use just 2-3 dashes total if that is the case), but the drink won’t have quite the same flavor as with Peychaud’s bitters.

Lets make good use of that lemon we have been peeling twists from. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice. Add that to whiskey and some sugar or (simple syrup), and you have a Whiskey Sour.

Whiskey SourWhiskey Sour

2oz Bourbon

.75oz Lemon Juice

.75oz Simple Syrup

Maraschino Cherries

The Whiskey Sour is another classic that is sure to please most everyone and serves as an easy introduction to “sour” cocktails.

So we have made three cocktails using whiskey and not much else. Let’s move on and add another versatile alcohol to our repertoire, sweet vermouth. The Manhattan is an essential classic that is easy to make, plus the sweet vermouth can be used for many other recipes, with or without the whiskey.



2oz Rittenhouse Rye

1oz Sweet Vermouth

2 Dashes Angostura Bitters

Luxardo Cherries

The Whiskey Sour, Old Fashioned and Manhattan are not only 3 of the most popular classic whiskey cocktails, but they are also great bases for which to create variations, allowing you a lot of flexibility when getting started. Some of these have been featured on The Straight Up, with more to come.

As you are looking at new recipes, keep an eye on the ingredients. A great way to build your home bar is to occasionally add one new ingredient at a time, preferably one that will be useful in multiple cocktails.

Let’s pause for a minute and discuss a few things before we move on. At this point we have made 4 cocktails with minimal effort. Just like the vermouth, we can move on from here in different directions by simply adding one ingredient at a time. This is an easy way to slowly build up your collection.

In future articles, we will discuss other spirits and how easy it is to get started with them. Some of the same ingredients presented in this article will be used, illustrating how you can build up your list of recipes without buying a bar worth of ingredients.

It is also important to point out that for the purposes of this article we are discussing whiskey in general, rather than a specific type. Feel free to make these recipes with any type of whiskey you like, although classically the majority of recipes in the article are classically made with Rye. In fact, you could easily substitute another base spirit, whether a different type of whiskey or something new all together such as aged rum, gin or mezcal to create something completely new.

Moving forward, I will now present two more cocktails as examples of adding a single ingredient at a time. While we could take this in many directions, I have chosen the following cocktails for a few reasons:

  1. They contain ingredients that will be useful for making many other cocktails.
  2. They are great classic cocktails (Boulevardier might just be my all time favorite cocktail).
  3. They will likely be unknown to those new to mixology. Learning them will give you more depth as well as help you impress and educate others.

For more ways to use Campari, check out: Campari.

For our next ingredient, let’s add Campari to our bar. This spirit can also be used in a variety of cocktails, as well as drank straight, over ice, in prosseco, or with seltzer. We will use the Campari with our whiskey and sweet vermouth to make a Boulevardier.


1oz Bourbon

1oz Sweet Vermouth

1oz Campari

Orange twist

The Boulevardier is classically made with bourbon, and is the only cocktail presented in this article that calls for a whiskey rather than rye. That being said, the Boulevardier tastes great with Rye as well, but will be less sweet. The goal for now is to develop a range of cocktails, not absolute perfection. I often substitute an ingredient for another that is similar when I don’t have the one called for in the recipe. Point being, you can fill in the details so to speak as you build your bar. That said, if you already have bourbon, go for it.

For our final example, we will add one more very useful ingredient, Dry Vermouth. Again dry vermouth will come in handy for making other cocktails as well (ever had a Martini?). If you swap out the sweet vermouth in the Boulevardier for dry vermouth (and stick with Rye), you will have an Old Pal.

Old Pal

Old Pal

1oz Rye

1oz Dry Vermouth

1oz Campari

Lemon Twist

Many folks use a more modern ratio of 2:1:1 whiskey to other ingredients with the Old Pal and in some cases the Boulevardier. Just another way to add variety to a smaller collection of spirits.

That wasn’t so hard was it? In summary, to start our whiskey cocktail list, we have a total of 6 drinks using 7 ingredients and some fruit, all of which will come in handy for many other cocktails, or taste great by themselves. Let’s recap all the items mentioned above:

What you’ll need:

  • Whiskey (preferably Rye for 5/6 recipes) – $10-20
  • Angostura Bitters – $6
  • Peychaud’s Bitters – $6
  • Absinthe (or other Anise liquor) – $40-80 (absinthe), $20-30 (Pernod, etc)
  • Campari – $20-30
  • Sweet Vermouth – $10 (average) up to $30 or more for something more high end
  • Dry Vermouth – $10 and up (just like sweet vermouth)

With the list above you are sure to impress your friends, customers, etc, with 6 great classic cocktails. If you feel like going the extra mile, check out the histories and variations under most recipe pages to become even better rounded.

It is through the SIMPLE process of adding an ingredient at a time to what you already know, that slowly and comfortably, you EXPAND your repertoire.

Who knows, maybe you begin to accumulate a bar full of great ingredients and are so inspired that you start a website dedicated to your new passion. . . or maybe you don’t. Either way, mixology can be an educational, fun and interesting hobby at the very least.

Getting started making COCKTAILS doesn’t have to be difficult or insanely expensive. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should your bar.

3 Responses to “Cocktails Simplified – Whiskey”

  1. Raul from DeathtoSourMix

    This article made me smile. Where were you and this blog a couple years ago?!

    • The Straight Up

      Thanks for stopping by! A couple years ago I was fairly new to the world of classic cocktails; although I thought I was into “good” drinks at the time. Man I had a lot to learn. . .and still do!


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