The Old Fashioned is the foundation and pillar of the cocktail world. Arguably the most iconic and time-tested cocktail in history, its chemistry—being no more than spirit, water, sugar and bitters—makes it one of the simplest, too. Let’s take a peek at its origin and how it’s evolved over the last two centuries.
1806, a Newspaper Inquiry and the Birth and Evolution of The Old-Fashioned
The story of the Old-Fashioned begins in 1806 when a reader of the upstate New York newspaper, The Balance, and Columbian Repository, expressed confusion about a reference to “cock-tail” in the previous week’s edition:
“I have heard of a forum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, of moistening the clay, of a fillip, a spur in the head, quenching a spark in the throat, of flip &c, but never in my life, though have lived a good many years, did I hear of cock tail before. Is it peculiar to a part of this country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body?”(Slate)
This inquiry was the first written record of the term “cock-tail” which was described as any mix of alcoholic spirits according to the editor’s response:
“Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. It is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.” (Slate)
From there, the term “cocktail” permeated through barrooms around the nation, dawning a new era in the history of libations. But before the Old-Fashioned became what we know it as today, a period of terminology had to evolve.
Requests for “old-fashioned cocktails” referred to a general style before becoming synonymous with a particular drink. This eventually evolved to mean a single recipe according to Robert Simonson, author of “The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore” and authority on all things cocktails told Eater. “The Old-Fashioned was an evolution of the Whiskey Cocktail which was simply whiskey, sugar, bitters, and water, and was served as early as 1800 or so.” It wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s that when bartenders “began adding embellishments to their Whiskey Cocktails, some customers rebelled against the innovations,” as they preferred the traditional version and would choose to order “old-fashioned whiskey cocktails” in their place.
In 1862, one of the founding fathers of the bartending world, Jerry Thomas, published Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks, which includes one of the first written instances of the name “Old-Fashioned.” The book calls for the recipe of the Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail: "Crush a small lump of sugar in a whiskey glass containing a little water, add a lump of ice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a small piece of lemon peel, one jigger Holland gin. Mix with small bar spoon. Serve."
While similar in DNA, including the use of the Old-Fashioned name, the recipe never mentioned whiskey, which is widely excepted as the base spirit for today’s recipe.
The official origin of the drink is still heavily debated. While the Waldorf-Astoria in New York by way of the Pendennis Club, a private social club in Louisville, KY has been crested as the birthplace of the cocktail as we know it today, the publication of Modern American Drinks, by George Kappeler, in 1895 mentions the recipe for the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail that Simonson describes as the evolutionary link between the whiskey cocktail and Old-Fashioned as we know it.
“Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass." - Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, Modern American Drinks, George Kappeler
Eventually, the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail would be shortened to the Old-Fashioned and the rest is, as they say, history.
The Original 1806 Old-Fashioned Recipe
2 oz bourbon
½ teaspoon sugar
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon water
Garnish: orange peel
Add the sugar and bitters to a rocks glass, then add the water, and stir until the sugar is nearly dissolved.
Fill the glass with large ice cubes, add the bourbon, and gently stir to combine.
Express the oil of an orange peel over the glass, then drop in.
The Post-Prohibition Old Fashioned
At the end of the 19th century, the Old-Fashioned was by and large set in stone. It would take the years of Prohibition to muddy the recipe and usher in a new era for the infamous cocktail.
Unless granted the ability to produce products considered “medicinal, many distilleries went belly-up during prohibition. The void left ample room for illicit distillation and distribution operations to capitalize on the market. Pre-prohibition cocktail history suffered a blow in the decades to follow. On the other side, the cocktail traditions of the past were largely forgotten and replaced with new methodologies and ingredients. The “golden age” of cocktails, including the Old-Fashioned, would not be exempt.
Simonson says, “During Prohibition, that simple [Old-Fashioned] formula evolved into a fruity concoction of muddled orange and cherry that reigned for decades to come. “Some theorize the fruit was used to mask the bad taste of the whiskey used during that time. Others think the Old-Fashioned became confused with other drinks that called for fruit.”
By the time the Madison Avenue types substituted it for their morning coffees, the muddled-fruit version of the Old-Fashioned dominated the mid-20th century until a rogue band of bartenders would alter its course in history.
The Mid-Century (1960s) Old Fashioned Recipe
2 oz Whiskey
3 dashes bitters
1 maraschino cherry
1 orange wedge
1 sugar cube
Garnish: orange wedge and maraschino cherry
Mix sugar cube and cherry in a rocks glass and muddle to express the liquid. Add in the orange wedge and muddle.
Add ice and pour whiskey and bitters. Quickly stir. Top with soda water (optional).
The Craft Cocktail Renaissance and Modern Day
For more than a century, it’s been refined, diluted, dissected and resurrected. Being one of the most versatile recipes, for decades, bartenders have been riffing and reinventing new versions of the classic cocktail.
When a curious band of bartenders in the 1990s started to look back in time to understand the origins of the drinks they mixed, they rediscovered a rich history that spanned well over a century. Of this curious group, Dale Degroff, Dick Bradsell and Julie Reiner, to name a few, became pioneers of the modern-day cocktail renaissance and influential craft cocktail bars like Milk & Honey, Angel’s Share and Flatiron Lounge began to reclaim the “golden age” of cocktails and (re)educate industry colleagues and guests.
Copious drinks were rediscovered since the birth of this movement, chief among them, the original recipe for the Old-Fashioned. Bartenders set out to expunge decades worth of muddled-fruit versions and get back to basics.
What’s followed has been a rebirth of the Old-Fashioned cocktail that has transcended the simple spirit, water, sugar and bitters recipe of 1806. Today, there is solace in knowing that one can order an Old-Fashioned no matter the clout or type of bar it is. For many bartenders, it’s the first and most important drink to learn the basics of and then build upon. The evolution of the Old-Fashioned isn’t over, its story is still being written.
Here are three modern takes on the Old-Fashioned that we’re sipping on.
Add the fat-washed bourbon, maple syrup and bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Strain into a rocks glass over one large ice cube.
Express the oil of an orange peel over the cocktail and drop in the peel.
*Fat-washed Four Roses bourbon (from Jim Meehan’s “The PDT Cocktail Book”): In a cambro/container, combine 1 750 mL bottle of Four Roses bourbon and 1 1/2 ounces liquified fat from Benton’s Smoky Mountain country ham. Set aside for 4 hours to infuse. Place the container in the freezer for 2 hours. Take the container out of the freezer, and strain the bourbon from the solidified fat with terry cloth or cheesecloth.
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