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Old Fashioned

Before we had bars, we had places called taverns and saloons. And before we had Manhattans, Martinis, and other fancified cocktails, there was a drink which people simply referred to as a 'whiskey cocktail.'

It was the early 19th century, and the term 'cocktail' referenced a simple drink composed of a spirit along with a bit of sugar, water, and bitters added to it; and all you had to do was specify your spirit of choice (assuming the establishment fancied such things as "choice"). So if you were a whiskey drinker you'd ask for a 'whiskey cocktail,' and you'd get a drink with a hefty dose of whiskey, a small cube of sugar to tame out its rough edges, just enough water to dilute the sugar, and a few dashes of bitters to bind everything together and remind you of the benefits of civil society. If ice was available, it was added to the mix for its well-known cooling effect.

Being the only game in town--at least as far as cocktails were concerned--it caught on like hotcakes and soon finer establishments like hotel bars began serving it. Since these places had access to exotic ingredients like citrus fruit, someone eventually got the bright idea of adding a twist of orange or lemon peel to it, which really elevated the drink with its aromatic oils.

Eventually the Industrial Revolution rolled in and brought with it advancements like refrigeration, which made ice available like it had never been before. Another thing that happened was we began getting all sorts of new ingredients over from Europe--things like Italian vermouth and Chartreuse--which opened the door for cocktail creativity like never before.

These conditions were like coal to a steam engine, kicking the cocktail craze into high gear as inventive barkeeps competed to concoct potions that would entice their customers and possibly get their names in the paper. This was the late 19th century, and it was the Golden Era of cocktails where men like "Professor" Jerry Thomas became veritable stars from behind the bar.

With the plethora of drinks now available, 'whiskey cocktail' was no longer a sufficient descriptor. To indicate you wanted an old fashioned whiskey cocktail, well, you now had to ask for an 'old fashioned whiskey cocktail,' and that's how the Old Fashioned got its name. Change can surely be beneficial, and becoming officially canonized the Old Fashioned well.

Not all change was beneficial however. The Golden Era came to a crashing end in 1920 as Prohibition became the law of the land. If you were a bartender you were faced with the choice of changing careers or changing landscape. Those who had the talent fled to legally ply their trade in Cuba, Europe, or anywhere else that advertised itself as an 'American style bar.' Many others simply changed careers.

Secret speakeasies opened up across the land serving cheap rotgut liquor. But unlike the romantic lore of the seductive speakeasy, these places were not in business to serve you a fine cocktail. There was neither the ingredients nor the talent for such feats. The bartenders (if you could call them that) were really nothing more than low-level mob guys looking to move their way up the totem pole.

The problem was the swill they were serving was often too harsh to cram down ones throat, so talented or not, you needed to concoct something that helps get the stuff down. So they started mixing the liquor with all manner of juices and sugar and anything else they could do to tamp down the flavor of the turpentine-like fluid.

The Old Fashioned suffered perhaps the worst of these indignities, as people began muddling oranges and maraschino cherries into the drink and loading it up with club soda, turning it into a sickish sweet mush. Somehow even despite the end of Prohibition in 1933, this sacrilege version of an Old Fashioned has survived to become the version most people know to this day. Some of you may be reading this and thinking, "wait a minute, my grandfather drinks Old Fashioneds with the muddled fruit and he swears by them!" Well I hate to inform you pal, but your grandpa is a biotch.

Thankfully what was once a lost and forgotten cocktail has resurfaced over the last decade, as bars in big cities and bloggers have taken up the task of reintroducing this drink to the public. Here's the original recipe:

Old Fashioned
2 oz whiskey (preferably rye but you can use bourbon)
1 sugar cube or tsp simple syrup
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
orange, lemon, or grapefruit peel

Tools: muddler (if using sugar cube)
Glass: Old Fashioned glass (duh)

Place sugar or syrup in Old Fashioned glass and add the bitters. If using a sugar cube add a teaspoon of water and muddle it until partially dissolved. Add the whiskey along with ice (big solid chunks work better) and stir. Twist the citrus peel over the drink to release its oils and garnish it.

It doesn't get any simpler than that, and once you'll taste a properly made Old Fashioned you'll hopefully never give another thought to muddling your fruit in it. Originally rye was used but you can use any whiskey you like, and truth be told you can even use rum, applejack, or any brown (oak-aged) spirit you like. Lastly, the citrus twist is not a mere garnish. It adds much to the drink and shouldn't be neglected; you can use orange, lemon, grapefruit, or any combination thereof, as long as the peel is ripe with oils.

Now go make one for your grandpa!

*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below.
Column: Happy Hour


  • Made this last night with the OO, like an OG! It’s the perfect cocktail!

    You suggest simple over gum?

    Kayoko on

  • Kayoko – Yes if you have gomme syrup definitely use that over simple cuz it adds a nice mouthfeel and body to the drink.

    However I still prefer the ‘old fashioned’ way of doing it by muddling a sugar cube (I use raw sugar cubes) because I like how the sugar doesn’t completely dissolve at once, so that the drink is not uniformly sweet. I actually like how the drink gets slightly sweeter as I near the finish (and as I become more inebriated) preparing me for the next round).

    Simply a matter of preference so if you want evenly distributed sweetness go with simple or gomme syrup, and def gomme over simple.

    aynsavoy – Yes the Oaxacan OF is a mainstay. This is what makes the OF so great, that 200 years later it can be adapted into a totally innovative new drink without compromising the original flavor structure of the classic.

    Paystyle on

  • Great post on the history of the great drink!

    When it comes to variations, I’m a fan of the Oaxacan Old-Fashioned, made with mezcal. A twist of grapefruit is just right!

    aynsavoy on

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