Old Fashioned cocktail

Words by Simon Difford and Robert Simonson

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Traditionally made with bourbon or rye whiskey, lightly sweetened with sugar and aromatised with bitters this most classic of vintage cocktails is served over ice in a heavy bottomed tumbler named after the drink and garnished with an orange zest twist.

The Old-Fashioned is just that, a very old, established cocktail, but over many decades this vintage classic has changed name, originally being known as the Whisky Cocktail. It has also evolved with both the methods deployed to make it and its ingredients influenced by bartending fashions. This has resulted in six different methods/ingredients being used:

1. Bourbon or rye whiskey
Jerry Thomas inclusion of the Whiskey Cocktail in his 1862 The Bar-Tender's Guide, the world's first cocktail book, calls for a "wine-glass of whiskey". In those days that "whiskey" would probably have been rye whiskey with bourbon developing in the decades after prohibition. Consequently some traditionalists insist an Old-Fashioned should be made with rye, but bourbon is equally correct and the choice of whiskey should be entirely up to the personal taste of the drinker. Bourbon makes a mellow, slightly sweeter drink, while rye adds more spice and kick.

Be aware of the alcoholic strength of your whiskey. In my Old-Fashioned I like to use a combination of 1½ shot bourbon at 45% alc./vol. and 1 shot straight rye whiskey at 50% alc./vol. (When you shake a bottle of straight rye it should hold a foam for a good few seconds or I consider it too weak for my Old-fashioned.)

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2. Sugar cube or sugar syrup
Older recipes for the Old-Fashioned tend to call for sugar syrup or gum syrup but over the ages a trend for sweetening with a sugar cube has emerged. This is placed in the base of the glass, dampened with aromatic bitters, and usually a splash of water, and is then pulverised and stirred into a syrup with the flat end of a bartender's spoon. All that time and effort to make syrup when pre-made sugar syrup could instead be simply poured in. As David A. Embury writes in his seminal The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, "You can make perfect Old-Fashionds only using sugar syrup."

I almost understand the desire to use a cube when 1:1 (50 brix) 'simple' sugar syrup is the only sugar syrup available in a bar but not when homemade 2:1 (70 brix) sugar is available. When making your sugar syrup consider using unrefined Demerara sugar or a combination of this and white caster sugar.

3. Muddling of fruit
In the U.S. orange and lemon segments, and often a maraschino cherry or two, are regularly muddled into Old-Fashioned cocktails. The practice probably originated during Prohibition as a means of disguising rough spirits and thankfully this practice never caught on in England. As Crosby Gaige wrote in 1944, "Serious-minded persons omit fruit salad from Old-Fashioneds." However, an Old-Fashioned in not complete without an orange zest twist with some also liking an additional lemon zest twist, but that would seem to be heading back to fruit salad territory.

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4. Stir in the glass or in a mixing glass
Back in 1862, Jerry Thomas called for a Whiskey Cocktail to be shaken and if you're a lover of Fruit Salads (see above) then you may as well shake your Old-Fashioned. However, correct society, good manners and leading bartenders now dictate that an Old-Fashioned should be stirred, and stirred, and stirred some more. The stirring action is essential to attaining the correct dilution. This can be achieved in a mixing glass but I prefer to stir directly in the serving glass, gradually adding more ice as I stir.

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5. What bitters?
There is no doubt (well at least I have none) that an Old-Fashioned is improved by the use of aromatic bitters but the question is what bitters. Originally Broker's bitters were used but almost by default, due to their being one of the only aromatic bitters to survive, Angostura Aromatic Bitters are now most commonly used. Thankfully, a huge range of bitters are once again available including reproductions of both Broker's and Abbotts bitters, both of which work well in Old-Fashioneds.

6. Ice
If using a mixing glass to prepare an Old-Fashioned then the drink looks much more appealing and holds its dilution better if strained over a single large chunk of ice. Otherwise I recommend my usual double frozen ice (from ice-machine to freezer and freezer to ice well.)

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I've experimented with all off the above and find myself reverting back to the method David A. Embury stipulates to make his Old-Fashioned De Luxe and the method endorsed by Dick Bradsell when the Old-Fashioned become popular in London in the mid 1990s. Stirred and stirred directly in the glass with ice gradually added.

My favoured Old-Fashioned recipe calls for both bourbon and rye. For the reasons given above I favour sugar syrup over sugar cubes and use a little more sugar than most, but then I also use a dash more of bitters and a glug more whiskey than most so I guess I'm in line with the proportions used by most.

The story of the Old-Fashioned

Like many veritable classics, the origins of this cocktail are shrouded in the mists of time. So for clarity we commissioned an expert, Robert Simonson, author of Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore to write the following.

"The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail (the drink's full name) is the primordial drink, dating from the earliest days of the cocktail era. It follows the classic cocktail formula as laid down in 1806: spirit, a bit of sugar, a bit of water, and bitters. It is rare among mixed drinks in that, over the following two centuries, it never completely faded from view. However, the drink did go through a roller-coaster's worth of twists and turns.

For the first several decades of its life, the drink went by the name of simply Whiskey Cocktail. During this period, it was served 'up' and without ice, and was considered a 'matutinal' cocktail-that is, it was commonly drunk in the morning as an eye-opener. By the 1840's, it picked up in popularity as a favored drink among the well-heeled young 'dudes' of the time.

Beginning in the 1870's, bartenders, bewitched by the new liqueurs available to them, began making "Improved" Whiskey Cocktails, spiked with dashes of absinthe, curacao, maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse and other potions. This led to a revolt among old-school imbibers, who began to call out for "Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktails"- that is, the standard formula of whiskey, bitters, sugar, water. Thus, the name by which we now know the drink came into being.

Various people and bars have, over the years, claimed to have invented the Old-Fashioned, the most noted and persistent boast coming from Louisville's private Pendennis Club, which was founded in 1881 [see below]. All have been debunked. As the Old-Fashioned began life as a "cocktail" in its most elemental form, any meaningful authorship of the drink will likely never be established.)

For reasons that are unclear, The Old-Fashioned took a different form than the old Whiskey Cocktail. It was now served in the glass in which it was prepared (a short, heavy-bottomed glass which came to be known as an Old-Fashioned glass); was made with lump sugar, not syrup, which was pulverized into syrup by the use of a muddler (now an all-important tool in the creation of the cocktail); and was served on the rocks. It was now enjoyed as a sipping drink, not the knock-back it was of old. It kept to this form in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and was wildly popular.

Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Old-Fashioned again underwent an alteration. The cocktail was now commonly made with fruit, typically an orange slice and maraschino cherry, though pineapple was also often drafted into use. Sometimes, the fruit was muddled at the bottom of the glass. Again, the causes of this change are obscure. A creditable theory posits that fruit was added during Prohibition to disguise the taste of the poor liquor being used. One thing is for certain: every one of the flood of cocktail books that came out in the 1930s featured recipes for the Old-Fashioned that called for fruit. Bartenders, newly returned to service after 13 years of inactivity, duly followed the formula.

The drink enjoyed another burst of popularity in the decades following Repeal, particularly among women, who were now accustomed to drinking in public. However, by the 1970s, with the rise of vodka and disco drinks, the Old-Fashioned began to fall into eclipse. By the end of the 20th century, it was a drink mainly associated with older people.

A few geographical pockets kept the drink's name alive. It never fell from its pedestal in the United States' Midwest. However, in that area (particularly in the state of Wisconsin), it was prepared in its own sui generis way, with muddled fruit, domestic brandy and curious garnishes such as pickled mushrooms. In the UK, which never adopted the American fruited version of the cocktail, it was also never forgotten. However, bartenders favored an unusual 'stirred-down' version of the drink, in which the whiskey and ice were added gradually, and preparation could last as long as five minutes. This method has been traced back to Dick Bradsell, who credits his early mentor Ray Cooke with instructing him to make it that way. Both Cooke and Bradsell are acolytes of David Embury's "The Fine Art of Making Drinks," in which a lengthy execution of the Old-Fashioned is advocated.

The Old-Fashioned returned to its 1880's form during the first decade of this century, when cocktail historians and bartenders uncovered old cocktail manuals and the recipes they contained. The best cocktail bars began serving the drink, sans-fruit, and the Old-Fashioned once again entered an era of wide popularity, among young and old drinkers alike. Literally hundreds of new variations on the Old-Fashioned formula also began to crop up. Among these, a few emerged as modern classics, including Phil Ward's tequila and mezcal-laced Oaxaca Old-Fashioned and Don Lee's bacon-flavored Benton's Old-Fashioned."

The Pendennis Club

In his 1931 Old Waldorf Bar Days, Albert Stevens Crocket, writes of the Old-Fashioned, "This was brought to the Old Waldorf in the days of the 'sit-down' Bar, and was introduced by, or in the honor of, Col. James E. Pepper, of Kentucky, a proprietor of a celebrated whiskey of the period. It was said to have been the invention of a bartender at the famous Pendennis Club in Louisville, of which Col. Pepper was a member."

Crocket would appear to corroborate the Old-fashioned being created by a bartender at the Pendennis Club in Louisville. The club maintains that the bartender was Martin Cuneo, and that he made the drink for a Kentucky Colonel (and bourbon distiller) named James E. Pepper sometime between 1889 and 1895. In those days the clubhouse was situated at the old Belknap family mansion located between Third and Fourth Streets on the south side of Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Blvd.) in Louisville. This was torn down and replaced by the current opulent Georgian clubhouse, located about a block to the east, at 218 West Walnut Street, which opened in late 1928.

As Robert writes above, there are numerous references to the Old-Fashioned that pre-date that drink Martin Cuneo made for Colonel Pepper, so the Pendennis Club cannot be the drink's birthplace. The club accept that the drink's origin pre-dates 1889/1895 but maintains that Martin Cuneo created the version of the Old-Fashioned with added muddled fruit and sugar syrup.

So it's certain that the Old-Fashioned was not created at the Pendennis but perhaps the fruity version of the drink, which became the regular way the drink was served for decades in America, was invented at the Pendennis?

I have a fondness for the Pendennis and have enjoyed drinking Old-Fashioneds at the club so I'd very much like to believe that at least the fruity version of the Old-Fashioned originated there. Sadly, apart from a 2009 paper produced by the Club there is no known evidence to support this and the recipe given by Crocket in Old Waldorf Bar Days has no mention of muddled fruit so discrediting the only supportive evidence there is. More damming is the 1914 Drinks book published by Jacques Straub, a former manager at the Pendennis Club, which omits fruit in the Old-Fashioned entry and makes no mention of the cocktail being created at the club where he worked for two decades.

Old-Fashioneds & variations

Old-Fashioned Difford's recipe

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Old-Fashioned Muddled fruit version)

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Almond Old-Fashioned

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Benton's Old-Fashioned

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Brubacker Old-Fashioned

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Call Me Old-Fashioned (AKA Cognac Old-Fashioned)

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Maple Old-Fashioned

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Oaxaca Old-Fashioned

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Rum Old-Fashioned

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Tequila Old-Fashioned

Gin Old-Fashioned (AKA Stubby Collins)

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