It wasn’t always this way. In fact the history of this iconic American classic is a lengthy and storied one. We’ve boiled it down to the Cliffs notes version for you to spout off to your friends the next time you order one. If you’re thirsty for more, there are excellent books and essays on the subject. We recommend The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail by The New York Times spirits writer Robert Simonson or this fascinating article on Slate.
The origins of this cocktail go back so far that it’s tough to trust anyone who says they created it. The original drink was aptly named the Whiskey Cocktail for its simplicity and commonality up until the late 1800s. At this time the recipe consisted of something strikingly similar to what we enjoy today. A sugar cube generously wetted with bitters and joined by several blocks of ice. The glass is then warmed by a couple ounces of American whiskey. As my grandma says - what could be bad?
It was so simple in fact that it became more of a style of drink than a specific recipe. It wasn’t until 1880 that The Chicago Tribune printed and defined it as an “old-fashioned cocktail.” The name was inspired by the many drinkers who refused to change with the times and ordered their drinks the old fashioned way; a brown spirit, sugar, water and bitters.
The Dark Ages
After prohibition, our old pal the Old-Fashioned went through a prolonged awkward phase. After the speakeasies had closed and bars reopened, bartenders began altering the classic recipe. They added powdered sugar, soda water and a muddled blend of oranges, cherries and pineapple. (Oh my!) This newly popular drink - under the same name - enraged purists. It was so infamous that in 1936 a letter to the editor of The New York Times ranting on the subject went viral...whatever that means in 1936.
And yet, this newly perverse version of the classic soldiered on. The soberingly sweet and effervescent kick was almost a mockery of the original. Nonetheless, it continued to gain popularity and became the new meaning of the Old-Fashioned drink order for decades.
The Comeback Kid
At the turn of the 21st century a general Mad Men effect on the public started to take hold. Americans began to care about cocktails again...and sounding like Don Draper. Bartenders started to become mixologists and the soda guns were holstered. This cocktail renaissance inspired a look back to the history of many classic cocktail recipes. However, none had more of a resurgence than our dear friend the Old-Fashioned.
For the first time since prohibition, quality in cocktail became paramount and the true essence of the Whiskey Cocktail in the Old-Fashioned was restored. These days you’ll be hard pressed to find a barkeep that doesn’t know how to mix a proper drink, the Old Fashioned way.
The Classic Old-Fashioned
- 2 oz American whiskey (bourbon or rye)
- 1 teaspoon of raw or granulated sugar
- Angostura bitters
- Orange peel
Oaxaca Old-Fashioned via Phil Ward of Death & Co
- 1.5 oz of Reposado Tequila
- .5 oz of Mezcal
- 1 teaspoon agave nectar
- 1 dash of Angostura bitters
- Flamed orange peel