The Old Fashioned Cocktail - A History and Guide to the Bar Standard
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
The Old Fashioned Cocktail is one of the most popular cocktails in the United States. It's a simple drink that is traditionally made with whiskey, bitters, and sugar. Despite this simplicity, This vintage cocktail is available almost the world over and is a fantastic staple for every beginner bartender.
Like many simple cocktails, the quality of an Old Fashioned lies in its ingredients. To start it, it's essential that one uses quality bourbon, although it is acceptable to substitute for good rye if one desires. Aside from that, this drink is dirt easy to make and is the standard for cocktail bars in the western world.
So how did this drink become the standard? How did it get its name? Well, let's dive into the history to find out.
The Origins of the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail
Now, If we're jumping way back in time and talking technicalities, the old fashion actually originated with the dutch using Genever (Dutch Gin). This precursor has its documentation dating back to around 1862 (which is like the Jurassic period for cocktails) when Jerry Thomas published what is debatably 'the first' cocktail-making book 'the Bar-Tenders Guide.' Interestingly enough, the drink was labeled even then as an "Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail," which begs the question of how far does this drink go back really if it's being called old fashioned in 1862? But I digress; it wasn't until 1880 when the first "True Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail was published" by James E. Pepper, Bartender and Bourbon enthusiast of the Pendennis Club in Kentucky. He's cited as first mixing the beverage in Louisville but shortly after that is believed to have brought it to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, where it spread like wildfire. So now we know its origins and how the Old Fashioned got its name, but we're still a long way from Don Draper and the Mad Men of the 1960s, so let's fill in the blanks. "Yaseee' kid," I say with a poorly imitated 'Atlantic accent,' "prohibition was a real bitch." In 1920 the entire liquor industry was either shut down or, if you were bold, driven underground. Because of the illicit nature of the industry, the quality of the liquor degraded as it became harder to produce to the point where much of the liquor was borderline poison (yum). It's speculated that this underground culture of backrooms and speakeasies led to the variations of the old-fashioned that were cut with juice since it was the only way to make it tolerable (not to mention safe to drink). This, believe it or not, was blasphemy to many cocktail enthusiasts to the point that in 1936 the New York Times even published a letter to the editor on it. To this day, some are adamant that a true old fashion will be free from any additional fruits or liqueurs. So on that note, the drink's popularity in the underground allowed it to evolve and survive through the prohibition era and become the behemoth in the world that it is today. But even today in the. 21st century the camps are decidedly split between purists and those with more open attitudes to experimentation.
Classic Old Fashioned Recipe
Alright, so now that we've broken down the history of this drink, it's time to dive into mixing a great drink! For best results, please be sure to check out the tips below.
Jigger or Shot Glass
1/2 teaspoon sugar/ 1 Sugar Cube
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon water (optional)
2 ounces bourbon
1 Whiskey Ice Cube
Orange peel (garnish)
Fill your rocks glass with sugar and bitters and muddle
Load Cube into the glass, and run the orange peel along the rim
Add whiskey and gently stir until fully mixed
run the lime wedge around the rim of the glass and garnish the glass with it
Old Fashioned Mixing Tips, Tricks, and Techniques
Style Is Everything. Because of the simple nature of the Old Fashioned - I personally recommend using Ice to maximize the aesthetic and sophistication of the drink. For best results, I recommend using a large single cube or sphere gently placed into the glass. This will do two things. First, it will take down the "heat" of the Bourbon as ice will diffuse the flavor palette for a more enjoyable experience, but for two, this will ultimately give the presentation of your drink a leg up.
To Each Their Own. As mentioned earlier in the article, the original Old Fashioned wasn't even with whiskey at all. Due to its simplicity and variation over the years, brandy is considered an acceptable substitute to bourbon if one prefers. This version was actually popularized in Wisconsin in the early 1900s and is still popular today.
A Word On Syrups. Yes, it is acceptable to use simple syrup for efficiency, and as with all cocktails, it's about personal preference. However, if you're looking for authenticity and recreating the original cocktail, the answer is to use raw sugar definitively.