Spirit. Bitters. Sugar. An Old Fashioned Love Story.
We love a good story. One could argue that half the joy of sharing a cocktail is the story we learn and tell about them. If the lore of the cocktail kingdom has a mythology, then surely the Old Fashioned stands as the Cronos to the Titans of the Martini and the Manhattan.
Even with the passage of time referenced in its name, the drink has proven resilient to the whims of the passing generations, immortal and yet constantly born anew. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising because of one simple truth: the soul of the cocktail resides in the Old Fashioned.
Spirit. Bitters. Sugar. Water. That’s it. This is the definition of the word “cocktail”.
With the parts so easily defined, you could expect the expression of the Old Fashioned’s flavor to be quite limited - yet no other cocktail has inspired as much passion-filled debate. E ven today we can trace generational divides by their choice of the “correct” way to make an Old Fashioned.
To anyone who might think that this simple cocktail might be boring, or free of nuance and complexity, I offer this food for thought: flour, water, salt (or sugar) and fat. This a list of ingredients needed to make dough. A collection of parts just as simple, yields one of the largest food categories in the world. As dough became the foundation of modern cuisine around much of the world, the Old Fashioned stands as the cornerstone of drinking culture - solidly defined, yet brimming with infinite possibilities.
These possibilities come in two different flavors - the historical and the personal. And that’s what I want to talk about here: the story of the simple cocktail that changed the world, and the story of any of us who have picked up a barspoon and had our world change by a simple, bittered mixture.
So first things first, let’s define what we mean by the term Old Fashioned today.
WHAT IS AN OLD FASHIONED?
By today’s standards, an Old Fashioned cocktail looks something like this simple recipe:
2 oz Spirit (usually Rye or Bourbon)
⅓ oz Sweet (Simple or Gum Syrup)
2-4 dashes Bitters (commonly Angostura, but there are many kinds of aromatic bitters)
Combine all ingredients in a rocks/old fashioned glass with a large ice cube. Stir. Express oil from an orange or lemon peel and garnish. Drink.
There is no straining, or extra ice discarding. You don’t need a separate mixing glass. Hell, you don’t even need a barspoon - anything suitable for stirring will do. Some folks feel strongly that instead of syrup you need to use a sugar cube that is soaked in bitters and then muddled (I find that some precision is lost with this technique). Some people will insist on mixing in a separate glass and straining the cocktail over a large fresh ice cube. Some will add a cherry.
All of this doesn’t really matter. Wait, put your pitchforks down please. That’s the point - the Old Fashioned isn’t one cocktail. It is an enormous family of cocktails - always simple, yet as unique as fingerprints to each person who makes one. The variability is the heart of its beauty.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT THIS COCKTAIL?
Well, there is the history, which we dive into below, that sets it apart as the grandfather of most modern cocktails. But more importantly, it seems compelling to point out the key difference between the Old Fashioned and most other cocktails (the Dry Martini and Ti’ Punch serving as notable exceptions).
The difference lies in the role that the base spirit plays. Most cocktails marry several distinct flavors from spirits, syrups, vermouths, liqueurs, etc., to make a whole new concoction, distinct from the taste of its parts. The Old Fashioned doesn’t do this - instead it seeks to showcase the flavor notes of the whiskey at its heart. It’s a framing device that makes the spirit more accessible: the Old Fashioned is such a popular gateway cocktail because it feels like a new way of enjoying your favorite whiskey, rather than a new drink. Yet it’s more than the sum of its parts - it’s a true, seamless cocktail with its own sweeter and bittered flavor. It rewards good ingredients and surprises you with how it transforms them.
WHERE DID THE OLD FASHIONED COME FROM? WAS IT ALWAYS CALLED THAT? SEEMS LIKE AN ODD CHOICE OF NAME FOR WHEN IT WAS NEW…
The Old Fashioned is old, by cocktail standards at least, but it did have a different birth name, one even more literal than its current one.
The Whiskey Cocktail came about sometime in the mid 1800’s, and made its way into recorded history when Jerry Thomas catalogued it in his famous compendium in 1862. The recipe called for a couple dashes of Boker’s bitters, double that amount of gum syrup and a “wine glass of whiskey.” This mixture was then stirred or shaken with ice and strained into a wine glass and served with a lemon twist.
At first, the cocktail wasn’t as popular as its rivals of the day (the Sherry Cobbler or the Gimlet), but it won over fans steadily and by the 1880s it was a common staple of any social gathering. It also became the victim of its own success. In an effort to make their version of the Whiskey Cocktail stand out, and to capitalize on the newly arriving spirits from Europe, bartenders began to adulterate the cocktail with all kinds of liqueurs from absinthe to curacao. They called these The Improved Whiskey cocktails. Ordering a simple Whiskey Cocktail became harder until patrons began asking for an “old fashioned” version of the Whiskey Cocktail to make their desires clear. And so, out of need for clear communication, that is what it came to be called - “An Old Fashioned Cocktail.” The way it used to be made - whiskey, sugar, bitters.
But even though everything old was fashionable again - it didn’t actually go back to the former recipe. The newly born Old Fashioned generally called for raw sugar instead of syrup and was usually served over one large block of ice.
The addition of the block of ice is a distinction worth noting, and one that really highlighted the changing times. At the advent of the Whiskey Cocktail, mixing still had an element of masking the possible poor flavor of the spirit, and cocktails were a more pleasant way to take in one’s whiskey ration for reasons not quite so glamorous. By the time the Old Fashioned was born/resurrected, drinking culture had changed. The cocktail was praised for its non-adulteration of the spirit, and the large ice cube signaled that this was a drink to be indulged and savored.
THIS SOUNDS A LOT LIKE THE VERSION WE HAVE TODAY, BUT WHAT ABOUT ALL THOSE FRUIT COVERED VERSIONS I SAW UNTIL SOMEWHAT RECENTLY? ISN'T THAT AN OLD FASHIONED?
Yeah, that was a thing… Prohibition didn’t do cocktails any favors. Much of the evolved cocktail art was lost before the repeal of the prohibition came around. In some ways the Old Fashioned was a lucky survivor, but it was also a damaged victim. During the Prohibition, the bartender talent pool was largely lost to Europe, Cuba and other countries where cocktail consumption was still in legal demand. Those who picked up the mixing glasses in their stead were less concerned with perfection, and more with speedy service, law skirting and hoping that the day’s batch of rum runner’s hooch wasn’t going to turn their customers blind.
And so, just like one hundred years earlier, cocktails became more of a way to mask the poor taste of the even poorer quality alcohol - cue the copious amounts of fruit. Often seltzer water was added to make a longer, less boozy drink. After the repeal, people’s memories were already different. Sure, some still made Old Fashioneds in the old fashioned way, but the topping of orange slices, syrupy cherries and even pineapple had become too linked to drinkers’ expectations, and so they were here to stay. Furthermore, the traditional Old Fashioned is a fairly austere drink, we have to imagine that in the post-Depression, post-war years, austerity wasn’t exactly en vogue.
SO HOW DID WE ARRIVE AT THE OLD FASHIONED OF TODAY?
Let’s call it “The Great Vodka Reset” (this isn’t an official term, so don’t quote me). Vodka did almost as much to erase cocktail culture as Prohibition! And this turned out to be a good thing!
In the 1970s, in the middle of the Cold War, Vodka took over United States. Cocktails, having never recovered from the fruit salad trends of the post war years, were now also also victims of the pre-packaged trends of the chemical and mass production revolutions: hollow vestiges of the inventive libations they once were. Vodka, with its clean, no frills taste, was now cool. Drinks weren’t consumed much for the flavor of the spirit, but mostly for the effect, and the less one could taste the alcohol, the better. No one ordered Old Fashioneds anymore. By the late 1980s, few bartenders knew how to make any version, let alone a traditional one.
But this loss of demand for cocktails was just the blank slate needed for fresh bartenders to come along, dust off old bar manuals, and slowly, tiny bar by tiny bar, breathe new life into the Old Fashioned and its brethren.
THE OLD FASHIONED LIVES
Lives and thrives. While the 90s saw some debate on whether the post-war Old Fashioned or the traditional Old Fashioned was the “right” one, mixology focused bars of the early 2000s embraced the more austere variant, popularized it and brought the masses on board.
As the crowds trickled into the dim lit rooms of the neo-speakeasies, inspired by 1920s fantasies or Mad Men scenes they began to order Old Fashioneds again. They discovered the by-then century old secret, that something so simple can also be complex, soothing and joyful.
THE EMPOWERING COCKTAIL
Writers often talk about coming out of each others’ books, scientist stand upon each others’ shoulders, and it would be hard to argue against the idea that the modern cocktail scene poured out of the Old Fashioned glass. The birth of the Old Fashioned inspired many other classic cocktails, and its modern day rebirth helped re-spark an entire culture of drinking.
But I also think that it has inspired and enabled many of us on a more personal level. I know that this is true for me, and many other home bartenders that I’ve met. The deceptively simple recipe of the Old Fashioned makes mixing your own cocktails seem approachable and inviting. It can be the first step on a much more in depth journey of learning and experimenting that would otherwise seem daunting.
I remember having my first Old Fashioned in the mid 2000s in a speakeasy in New York, loving it, and assuming that it’s something too difficult to make at home. It was several more years of drinking Old Fashioneds in different cities before I learned how to make one - but I still remember the first combination I ever made at home:
There was something of a light bulb moment to that realization that I could, without much preparation or license make my own Old Fashioned at home, the way I wanted to. Maybe it’s a bit like when a kid first realizes that he can venture outside of his parents’ home, and the world all of a sudden becomes larger.
For a while, all I made was Old Fashioneds - with different whiskies, different amounts of sugar and for friends with varied tastes. And I was always secretly tickled that my friends were so impressed by my doing something so simple. Over the years my repertoire of cocktails grew - first slowly, then with great momentum - but the Old Fashioned still holds a special place in my heart.
Recently, I was sharing a cocktail with some of my Bitters and Bottles colleagues - we were at a place where extravagant and elaborate cocktails are the norm and a thought occurred to me that I had share with them. Like any hobby, passion or just diversion, cocktail mixing can take up as much or as little of your life as you give it room. For me, I know there may come a time when it won’t hold as much of a priority as it does now - but I firmly believe that I will always be making Old Fashioneds as long as I continue drinking. That same simple formula that makes it so accessible when you’re starting out, is also what makes it so endlessly alluring even once you’ve really figured out what you like. One could classify it as a search for perfection, but to me it’s quite the opposite. Every little tweak makes a large difference. Every different base spirit changes the entire thing. Just a little more bitters emphasizes a different taste. The slightest change in sweetness makes for a completely different experience. Unlike a more forgiving cocktail like a Manhattan, I don’t think I could make the same Old Fashioned twice. It’s simple, but it’s messy, it’s somehow low maintenance and incredibly demanding at the same time - and there’s something endlessly comforting and entertaining about that.
THE WIDE OLD FASHIONED WORLD
There are so many ways to experiment with making Old Fashioned cocktails (the answer may literally be infinite) that we had to chose just a few examples of some of our favorites. Like I mentioned before, we don’t think of the Old Fashioned as one cocktail, but rather as an approach to making a cocktail. Pick any spirit you love (it doesn’t have to be whiskey!), any bitters that sound like a good match, add some sugar - and you’re good to go!
My Current Favorite Old Fashioned:
+ Willet Family Estate Cask Strength 4 Year Rye Whiskey
+ Bitter Truth Bogart's Bitters
+ Small Hand Foods Gum Syrup
This version sticks to using a Rye whiskey as the base spirit, but the Willett Rye is quite different from the Rittenhouse. While Rittenhouse has more of a sweetness and almond like notes, Willett brings in a lot of wood and spice that are made even more voluminous by the higher ABV. What this means though is that I can enjoy this cocktail longer since it can get a bit diluted by the melting ice before it loses any of its character. The richness of the Bogart's Biters along with the silky sweetness of the gum syrup help tame and round out the wildness of the Willett.
The Crowd Favorite Old Fashioned:
+ Woodinville Straight Bourbon
+ Bitter Housewife Bull Run Barrel Aged Bitters
+ Small Hand Foods Gum Syrup
For a lot of folks a High-Rye Bourbon is the perfect bourbon to make cocktails with. This is because it's kind of a no-lose compromise. With a high-rye bourbon you get all the sweet corn notes in the beginning, and all the robust spice of the rye towards the end - it's a bit like drinking a cocktail before you've even mixed it at all. In this case Woodinville makes for a perfect partner to stand up to the deeper, barrel aged bitters that are tailor made for whiskey cocktails.
[Or try a similar version available as a cocktail kit]
The Autumn Old Fashioned
+ J. Rieger's Kansas City Whiskey
+ Australian Bitters Company Barrel Spice Bitters (Orange pictured by error)
+ BG Reynolds Rich Demerara Syrup
J.Rieger makes a blended American whiskey with some sherry mixed in for good measure. The result is smooth, slightly sweet whiskey with nutty quality that begs to be paired with some fall spices. The Barrel Spice Bitters provide just that - think of an amped up Angostura going home for Thanksgiving! The richness of the Demerara syrup rounds everything out with deep caramel notes.
The Rum Old Fashioned
+ Smith & Cross Jamaican Navy Strength Rum
+ Bittercube Jamaican No. 1 Bitters
+ BG Reynolds Rich Demerara Syrup
Love rum? Or maybe want to get into rum? Either way this Old Fashioned is for you. Filled with exotic fruit notes and spice, followed by oak and honey, Smith & Cross is the perfect rum to showcase in an Old Fashioned. The Jamaican No. 1 Bitters provide the perfect counter point with an allspice, pepper and ginger blend. This is a loud cocktail with a bounce in its step!
The Oaxaca Old Fashioned
+ Fortaleza Reposado Tequila
+ Montelobos Joven Mezcal
+ Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters
+ Codigo Organic Agave Nectar
First mixed up at New York's Death and Co., this old fashioned twist with a split Tequila/Mezcal base has become a simple modern classic. The deep and smooth vegetal notes of Fortaleza are supported by the smokiness of the mezcal with agave nectar providing the perfect sweetness that doesn't clash with the more savory agave flavors. The mole bitters work as a lightly spicy counter point. In this recipe the split base is 1.5 oz Tequila to 0.5 oz Mezcal.