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How the Oaxaca Old Fashioned Became Cocktail Royalty

How the Oaxaca Old Fashioned Became Cocktail Royalty

While now it’s standard to see tequila and mezcal used in place of whiskey in cocktails, one drink is credited with accelerating that trend. Invented by Phil Ward at the East Village’s Death & Co in 2007, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned swiftly made its way onto cocktail menus around the country, ultimately becoming a popular modern classic. To this day, the cocktail is one of the legendary bar’s most-ordered drinks of all time.

As its name suggests, Ward’s cocktail is a reimagined Old Fashioned. It calls on both tequila and mezcal in place of the traditional whiskey, and agave nectar for the sugar. The result is a pleasingly smoky and bright cocktail that especially lends to high-quality versions of the agave spirits. Another frequent swap? Mole or chocolate bitters instead of Angostura, which further leans into the Oaxaca vibes. To top it all off, Ward finishes the cocktail with a flamed orange twist that further accentuates its smokiness. 

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In A Proper Drink, which features Ward’s recipe, cocktail writer Robert Simonson declares that the Oaxaca Old Fashioned “opened the American mixology world’s eyes to the potential of using tequila and mezcal in cocktails.” He acknowledges that people had used tequila in Old Fashioneds long before Ward, but unlikely alongside mezcal, and with such finesse. “It has inspired countless imitations, with different names, but essentially the same recipe,” Simonson writes.

Ward’s original recipe calls for a reposado tequila (specifically, El Tesoro), a style of tequila that’s been aged between two and eleven months, typically in wooden barrels. He also opts for Del Maguey San Luis Del Rio mezcal, which is pleasingly smoky and spicy. Need more options? Any of these mezcals would shine in an Oaxaca Old Fashioned.

Bartenders around the country have practice riffing on the drink. Jose Perez-Roura of Broken Shaker Miami likes to play with his choice of mezcal and tequila, upping or toning down smokiness depending on a guest’s tastes. He doesn’t limit himself to reposado. 

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“I have made variations of the Oaxaca with blanco tequila,” he relays. “I have also used spicy agave or different bitters.” Perez-Roura appreciates the drink because “it allows both spirits to shine,” rather than overpower one another. “The overall popularity of the cocktail coincides with the overall surge in popularity agave spirits are having in the United States.”

In many ways, the Oaxaca Old Fashioned follows in the path of several other influential modern classics birthed by Death & Co., which also include the oft-imitated Naked and Famous (mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, Aperol, lime juice) and the Conference (rye, bourbon, calvados, Cognac.) Of these, “most of them [contain] four or five ingredients,” says co-founder David Kaplan, in Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails. “If Phil were a writer or artist, he’d be Raymond Carver or Richard Serra: His cocktails were minimalist and grounded in the classics, yet each took an innovative leap forward.”

How to Make a Oaxaca Old-Fashioned

Recipe by Phil Ward


  • 1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
  • 1/2 ounce mezcal
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 bar spoon agave nectar
  • Garnish: flamed orange twist


Combine all the ingredients except the garnish in an Old-Fashioned glass filled with one large ice cube.

Stir until chilled.

Top with a flamed orange twist, then drop the twist into the drink.


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