History of the
Old Fashioned cocktail
Other mixed drinks pre-date the Old Fashioned but "The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail", to give it its' full name, is considered the original "cocktail" with its component parts: spirit, sugar, water and bitters the very definition of what a true cocktail is.
The first known definition of the word "cock-tail" was published 13th May 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository, an upstate New York newspaper, in response to a reader enquiring what was meant by the word in an article.
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, in as much as it renders the heart flout 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 anything else.Editor, The Balance and Columbian Repository, 13/May/1806
The Old Fashioned cocktail acquired its' name and was popularised in America but the origins of a cocktail comprising a spirit, sweetener and bitters are English and follow the creation of the first aromatic bitters by London apothecary Richard Stoughton circa 1690. By the middle of the 1700s, his bitters were commonplace on bars across Britain and its' colonies where they were mixed with brandy or gin and sweet wine. In America, perhaps helped by its whiskey-loving first president, by the late 1700s, bitters were commonly being mixed with whiskey to make a Whiskey Cocktail, served straight-up, without ice. Over the early decades of the 1800s, the Whiskey Cocktail became ever more fashionable.
As with contemporary cocktails such as the Espresso and Porn Star Martinis, bartenders like to add their own flourishes and so the "Fancy" Whiskey Cocktail emerged with embellishments such as a lemon zest twist and stemmed glassware. By the 1870s, bartenders were making "Improved" Whiskey Cocktails, with dashes of absinthe, curacao, maraschino, Chartreuse and other liqueurs. Some drinkers were less than enamoured by these additions so started ordering "Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktails" to ensure they received a cocktail without such encumbrances. So the Old Fashioned was christened.
While these traditionalists were averse to the addition of liqueurs they obviously didn't object to the change from the Whiskey Cocktail being served straight up to the Old-Fashioned being served on-the-rocks in the heavy-bottomed tumbler in which it was prepared, a style of glass which became known as an Old-Fashioned glass. The Whiskey Cocktail was consumed in a gulp while the Old Fashioned was sipped.
The Old Fashioned continued to be made as it always had, with whiskey and bitters sweetened with sugar, usually a cube muddled into the cocktail through to Prohibition when an orange slice and maraschino cherry, and sometimes also a pineapple wedge, started to be muddled, along with the sugar in an Old Fashioned. The addition of the fruit could have emerged as a way of masking the poor quality of bootleg whiskey. The Old Fashioned survived in this fruit-laden form but was only enjoyed by its ageing audience as younger drinkers adopted the disco drinks of the 1970s and 80s.
1990s cocktail renaissance
Thankfully, in much of Europe and the UK, the fruited Old Fashioned never took off and the few drinkers that continued to order Old Fashioneds tended to prefer the classic whiskey, sugar and bitters serve. Then in the mid-1990s when the cocktail renaissance hit London, the Old Fashioned became one of the classics to be resurrected and celebrated. The influential Dick Bradsell made his by gradually adding more whiskey and ice cubes to the cocktail as he "stirred it down" in the glass in which it was to be served, taking as long as five minutes to make one drink. He was influenced by his early mentor Ray Cooke who thanks to David Embury's "The Fine Art of Making Drinks," made his Old Fashioneds this way.
When I started designing the menus for UK branches of TGI Fridays in the early noughties I remember arguing with the chains' US representatives that their specs needed to change as Old Fashioneds shouldn't be muddled with fruit. Happily, as the cocktail renaissance spread so the Old-Fashioned also returned to its 1880s form in the USA.
Remember the "Improved" Whiskey Cocktails of the 1870s? Contemporary bartenders also started making their own variations on the Old-Fashioned, some such as the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, Benton's Old-Fashioned and the Rum Old Fashioned becoming classics in their own right.