The Old-Fashioned is a classic whiskey cocktail that has been served since the mid-1800's. It is exactly what its name indicates: an 'old-fashioned' cocktail, and it is as popular today as it was when bartenders first poured it.
The Old-Fashioned Today
It's common for drinks to morph and evolve over the years, especially when we're talking about one of the very first cocktails! Today, there are many variations on the Old-Fashioned and a number of those are below the recipe.
Quite often, the drink will be topped with club soda, but that is not a traditional method and old-timers would certainly scoff at its use! Even the maraschino cherry is not original and honestly, it's not necessary for anything other than making the drink look a little fancier.
The point of the Old-Fashioned is to avoid adding too much to it. The best Old-Fashioned drinks are simple. Think of it as a way to dress up a straight pour of whiskey.
- Place the sugar cube at the bottom of an old-fashioned glass.
- Saturate the cube with bitters and muddle.
- Fill the glass with ice cubes.
- Add the whiskey.
- Stir well.
- Garnish with an orange peel.
A Note About the Fruit
Some bartenders will muddle a whole orange slice with the sugar cube. Others may muddle an orange peel or even a lemon peel with certain whiskeys.
If you choose not to muddle the peel, express it over the drink before dropping it into the glass.
To do this, simply twist up the peel and give it a good squeeze (pointed toward the glass, not your eyes!) and bits of citrus oils will spray into the drink.
An Old-Fashioned Cocktail a Century Ago
The story of the Old-Fashioned is something modern drinkers can relate to. This cocktail sparked the same debates in the late 19th Century bar scene that the modern 'martini' menus bring up today. It's funny to think that the Old-Fashioned was actually 'old-fashioned' over a hundred years ago, but it's true!
It was around the 1880's and 90's that the American cocktail scene really got going. Drinks were being created with curacao, absinthe, syrups and fruit juices and they were a hit. There were, of course, the holdouts, those nostalgic drinkers who wanted a simple drink with a kick like they got in the 'old days'; none of this fancy stuff!
Editorials were written in newspapers, arguments were raised in bars around the country and soon the Old-Fashioned got its official name. It was first published under the name in Theodore Proulx's (of Chicago's famous Chapin and Gore saloon) 1888 "Bartenders Manual".
The Pendennis Club Myth
The club did not open until 1881 and a year before that "old-fashioned cocktails" were mentioned in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. There was even an "ambiguous newspaper squib" that mentioned old-fashioned drinks as early as 1869.
The Original Cocktail
In truth, the Old-Fashioned formula dates back to the 1850's (or earlier). It could be made with whiskey, brandy or gin (Old Tom or Holland) and was, quite simply, liquor, sugar (not syrup!) and ice. Add bitters and you have the most basic definition of a cocktail.
A Historical Note About Ice
Wondrich's book is filled with interesting tidbits of bar trivia and it's one that every cocktail geek should own. Within the Old-Fashioned notes is a fascinating bit about the proper ice to use in an Old-Fashioned.
It turns out that ice balls and 2-inch cubes are nothing new; they simply got lost in the American bar until recently. Wondrich references uses in 1899: "...mixologically ambitious saloons preferred to refrigerate their Old-Fashioned with ice cut into 'perfect cubes about two inches on a side'".
The same theory that we use for adding a chill and slight dilution to a glass of straight whiskey has long been preferred for an Old-Fashioned. Those fancy ice machines ruined it for many years and I suggest every Old-Fashioned lover revert to the old ways.
How Strong Is the Old-Fashioned?
As you might imagine, the Old-Fashioned is not much lighter than a straight pour of whiskey. Essentially, we just need to factor in a little dilution. With that, an Old-Fashioned with an 80-proof whiskey would be around 32% ABV (64 proof). Those old-timers would be happy to know that it still has that kick they were looking for!