Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Often on Thursdays we’ll post about whiskey cocktails. And what better place to start the discussion than the old-fashioned?

What cocktail is best for making with whiskey?
What cocktail is the easiest to make?
What cocktail has the most interesting and confusing history?
What cocktail is screwed up more than any other cocktail?
What cocktail is perfect for someone new to whiskey?

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is the old-fashioned.

The History

For some cocktails, a sentence or two may be all that’s needed to cover the history of the drink. But this is the old-fashioned, boys and girls, so we need to get our learn on. While the old-fashioned may not be the first cocktail, its recipe mirrors the first time the word “cocktail” appeared in print in The Balance and Columbian Repository. In the May 13, 1806 edition of this newspaper, the writer answers the question, “What is a cocktail?” by essentially defining it as any spirit combined with sugar, bitters, and water.

For decades, the old-fashioned was thought to have been “invented” at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. However, recent discoveries by cocktail writer David Wondrich show a recipe mentioned in 1880, a year before the Pendennis Club opened. Even if they didn’t create it, the Club did much to popularize the drink. Legend has it that Club member Colonel James E. Pepper took the recipe to the bar at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, where it continued to grow in popularity.

A careful scrutiny of cocktail history shows the old-fashioned recipe changing with nearly each new cocktail book printed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It wasn’t but a couple decades into the 1900s before the old-fashioned had vile ingredients added, such as club soda and entire fruit bowls.

If you’ve ever ordered an old-fashioned in a sports bar or chain restaurant (I’m looking at you, Applebee’s), you’ve probably been served one of these versions.

Thankfully, the resurgence of the craft cocktail movement has brought the old-fashioned back to its rightful place of former glory.

The Recipe

The first mention of the actual recipe for the old-fashioned is said to be found in Theodore Proulx’s The Bartender’s Manual (1888). I’ve never seen a copy of this so I can’t pass along the recipe. But the next oldest recipe I’ve found is from Modern American Drinks (1895) by George J. Kappeler.

The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

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 (1.5 ounces) whiskey. Mix with a small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.

- - -

The water in the recipe is used to dissolve the sugar. Notice there are no signs of orange or lemons. A good recipe for sure, but I prefer a few modern twists. This is the recipe I use:

  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 1/4 ounce simple syrup
  • 2 dashes aromatic bitters
    (I often use Angostura, but lately I've been taken with Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters)

A great aspect of the old-fashioned is that it can be built in the glass. Add all ingredients to a whiskey or old-fashioned glass. Add ice and stir. I never add any fruit, but that’s a personal preference. If I were to add fruit, I would squeeze the peel of an orange (expressing the oils over the glass) over a bourbon old-fashioned.

The Execution

A few comments that might help you farther down the path of old-fashioned mastery:

  • Whether you choose to follow the original recipe, my recipe, or some combo of the two, soda water should never be used in an old-fashioned. Please stop this madness!
  • If you're going to use fruit, try not to stray from lemon and orange. It's an old-fashioned, not fruit salad.
  • If you must use a cherry, garnish with a bing cherry that's been soaked in brandy. Skip the electric red maraschino cherries found in grocery stores.
  • Do yourself a favor and buy large ice cubes. Large cubes melt slower (more on this in a future post) and look twice as good. Tovolo sells a silicone tray for only $7.99.
  • The old-fashioned can be crafted with any spirit: whiskey, gin, rum, brandy, etc. The drink will consist of chosen spirit, sugar, and bitters.
  • In future blog posts we can enter the crazy world of putting a twist on an old-fashioned (example: bacon infused bourbon + maple syrup + Angostura bitters).

Even though the recipe is basic, it’s a classic for a reason. If you haven’t tried to make an old-fashioned before, I would highly recommend it. It's truly a killer drink.