How to make an Improved Whiskey Cocktail, a sublime twist on an Old Fashioned

By Jason O'Bryan 26 April, 2024

Grab your favourite rye and give this one a try

Let’s say you sit down at a bar, and you tell the bartender that you’re in the mood for a whiskey drink. “Great news,” the bartender replies, “We’ve got two whiskey cocktails right now,” and points your attention toward a chalkboard, on which are written the two drinks: One is called a “Whiskey Cocktail” and the other is called an “Improved Whiskey Cocktail.” Which one are you going to order?

It feels like a trap, doesn’t it? Like seeing a restaurant called Very Good Restaurant? To me, the name of the Improved Whiskey Cocktail feels a bit like playing Old Maid with an eight-year-old and trying to ignore the middle card in his hand, which he has suspiciously raised above the others and has now begun to wiggle. And I’ll just go ahead and tell you that it’s not a trap, that the Improved Whiskey Cocktail is a subtle and sublime Old Fashioned variation, but to understand why it has such a goofy name, we have to go back a couple hundred years, to what could, in this context, be called the beginning of everything.

These days, the word “cocktail” is synonymous with “mixed drink,” but it wasn’t always so. A cocktail used to be a single thing, a specific recipe as opposed to a category, first defined in 1806 as “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” That was a cocktail. So if you walked into a tavern and asked after a Whiskey Cocktail, you wouldn’t get a list of drinks, you’d get a cup with whiskey, sugar, water (or ice, pending availability), and bitters.

In the first drinks book ever published, in 1862, Jerry Thomas includes the recipes for 13 versions of these so-called “cocktails,” mostly just enumerating different base spirits with near-identical instructions (i.e. Brandy Cocktail, Gin Cocktail, Champagne Cocktail, etc), but in the 1876 edition of his book, he adds an appendix with a fresh set of drinks. “The following additional recipes include all the latest inventions in Beverages,” he declares, before introducing us to a set of Collins’, Fizzes, Daisies, and, notably, Improved Cocktails, so named for their addition of two trendy new ingredients, maraschino liqueur and absinthe.

Absinthe, in particular, was all the rage—David Wondrich, in his magisterial Imbibe, quotes a bartender at the time, perhaps Jerry Thomas himself, as saying, “pretty near every drink I mix has a dash of the green stuff in it.” Both absinthe and maraschino liqueur had been around for a bit, and both make cameos in Thomas’s original 1862 book, but it seems to have taken another 10 years before bartenders realised just how good they tasted together, to say nothing of the expansive possibilities of only using small quantities of each. Absinthe, on its own, is intense with licorice and wormwood flavours and so high proof it practically glows, but in tiny quantities, it can shade in, deepen, spice, and otherwise enrich the experience of a drink.

A small hint of absinthe is what gives the Sazerac its magic as well, a cocktail perhaps you’ve noticed strongly resembles this one, but the Improved Whiskey Cocktail predates that drink by a full 30 years. It comes from a time before we knew how to give drinks cool names like the “Sazerac”—it’s back when there were only a couple dozen cocktails total—so we just called it like we saw it. Add a touch of earthy, fruity perfume in the form of maraschino liqueur and some piquant spice and depth from absinthe to a standard Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail? Why, that’s an Improved Whiskey Cocktail. What else would you call it?

Improved Whiskey Cocktail

  • 2 oz. rye whiskey
  • 0.375 oz. maraschino liqueur
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 2 dashes (or about ½ tsp.) of absinthe

Put as large a piece of ice as you have that will fit into a rocks glass. Carefully add the liquids and stir for about 10 seconds to combine and begin to chill. Take a lemon peel, express the oils over the top of the drink, give the peel a twist, and place it into the drink.

Notes on ingredients

Michter’s Straight Rye. Photo by Michter’s

Whiskey: To be clear, this tastes good with almost every spirit there is, but to make it as good as it can be, reach for rye. Bourbon, as with the Fancy Free, tends to step on the maraschino’s toes a little, but (most) rye whiskey’s relative lack of a bold front palate allows the seductive charms of the maraschino to express itself. I only tried it with four brands of rye whiskey and they were all good—it’s not a big enough sample size to claim I’ve found the “best” whiskey for this, but of those I tried, my favorite of the lot was Michter’s Rye, which not only gave the maraschino room to shine but also coaxed a lovely cinnamon spice from the bitters. But to be clear, this is good with pretty much any rye, I wouldn’t overthink it.

Maraschino Liqueur: You might be thinking of the bright red cherries that they put on ice cream for children, but this isn’t that. Maraschino liqueur is a distillate of the marasca cherry, a sour variety that grows around the Adriatic sea in Italy and Croatia. It’s unusual among liqueurs in that it’s distilled from cherries and not infused with them, so it tastes like cherries the way bourbon tastes like corn, which is to say, a little bit. There is a fruity core to it, but it’s also funky and floral and earthy and plainly unlike anything else.

There’s lots of brands but most stores only carry one or two— the most common is from Luxardo, which tastes like described above, and the other you might find is from Maraska, which is fruitier, more cherry flesh than cherry pit. Both will be exceptional here.

Bitters: I’ve read a whole bunch of online recipes that throw a dash of Peychaud’s Bitters in with the Angostura Bitters, presumably as a nod to the Sazerac. Don’t do this. It muddies up the flavour and makes it all more medicinal than I personally prefer. You have to choose, Peychauds or Angostura, and as far as I’m concerned, Peychaud’s is brilliant and indispensable in a Sazerac, which is where it belongs. Use Angostura.

Absinthe: Absinthe is a botanical product, like gin, and so absinthes with identical botanicals will still differ wildly from one another based on quality and type of botanicals, how and when they’re added, and so on. My line on absinthe used to be that you should just choose one and use it for everything, and that’s still pretty good advice—absinthe is expensive, and you’ll use it 0.10 oz. at a time, so it lasts forever—but after managing an absinthe bar for a year, I’ve learned just how dramatically different brands can affect different cocktails. Every cocktail has its “best” absinthe, and the idea of any one best absinthe for cocktail generally is nonsensical.

That said, given the realities of bank accounts and shelf space, my advice has to bifurcate: My favorite in tests for this cocktail was a mild but expressive blanche like the La Fée Blanche or La Clandestine, but I have to say that for cocktails generally, if you were only to buy one bottle, it would be some of “the green stuff,” like Butterfly Classic or Pernod.

Simple Syrup: You’ll find a bunch of recipes around that split the already small amount of sweetness into half maraschino, half simple syrup. I respectfully disagree. Maraschino can be a polarising flavour (see arguments about the Hemingway Daiquiri for more of this) but there’s so little of it here I would want more, not less. Thomas’s original 1876 recipe split the sweetness, so maybe people are just being historically accurate or maybe they disagree about the maraschino, but in any case, feel free to ignore the simple syrup request. A little maraschino is sweet enough.

This story was first published on Robb Report USA