The Old Fashioned, a timeless “cock-tail,” is ubiquitous the world over known to “spirit one up.” In a recent poll of 106 of the best bars in the world by Drinks International, the Old Fashioned is the number one selling classic cocktail, four years running. What makes the Old Fashioned such a hit? I would argue its balance and simplicity. Spirit, sugar, bitters, water, and a garnish of lemon and/or orange peel (if you so choose). It doesn’t get much easier than that.
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History of the Old Fashioned Cocktail
There are lots of stories on the origin of the Old Fashioned. While it’s not exactly clear when the Old Fashioned as we know it today was made or by whom, we do know, thanks to cocktail super sleuth Dave Wondrich, the first mention is from the Chicago Tribune in 1880. The paper said democrats toasting Samuel Tilden’s withdrawal from a second presidential bid drank, “hot-whiskies…sour mashes and old-fashioned cocktails.”
But, if you dig deeper into who first poured the infamous drink, it’s much harder to find a clear history. Googling Where did the old fashioned originate, will lead you to the names James Pepper, the Pendennis Club, and Waldorf Astoria, but the stories conflict. We may never know exactly where and when the Old Fashioned came to be. What we do know is, for over 140 years people have sipped this simple concoction in bars, at home, at work (I’m looking at you, Draper), anywhere a great cocktail is needed.
It’s worth mentioning that some of you,::cough:: Wisconsin, are all about muddling an orange slice and/or a maraschino cherry in your Old Fashioned, but that is not an Old Fashioned. What is it then? Bartender, Dy Godsey, has a great article about the history of the Wisconsin or Brandy Old Fashioned, and why we call it an Old Fashioned.
What does the Old Fashioned taste like?
If you’re one of the few that haven’t tried an Old Fashioned and are used to cocktails with mixers and juices, a spirit-forward cocktail might be intimidating. But don’t be afraid of the Old Fashioned. When made correctly, the boozy burn of the whiskey is offset by the sweetness of the sugar, dilution of water, and the flavor and aroma of the bitters.
And don’t forget the garnish of a lemon or orange peel. By many accounts, aroma has much more to do with flavor than with taste and that garnish with expelled oils could make all the difference.
While you’ll feel it if you drink too many of these, they are meant to be sipped and savored. To quote Robert Simonson, “This is a drink to be lingered over, a drink made for contemplation.”
Making an Old Fashioned at home
The Old Fashioned is one of the easiest cocktails to learn to make at home. You don’t need any fancy tools, special skills, or lots of ingredients to make a good one.
But, there are a few tips to consider to make sure you get it right:
- Pay attention to the measurements. Making cocktails is as much of an art as it is a science, and the ratios will affect the way the drink tastes. Once you have mastered the basic recipe, you can create your own variations and adjust it to your liking.
- While we recommend you use a mixing glass and strain over ice, you could build this in the glass and skip that step.
- You don’t need a high-end whiskey. The reason this cocktail exists is that people were trying to make not so good booze taste better, but we always recommend buying something that tastes good on its own. Some good inexpensive whiskeys we like for mixed cocktails are Old Overholt, Buffalo Trace, and Four Roses Straight Bourbon.
This is how we make our Old Fashioneds.
Old Fashioned Cocktail Variations
The old-fashioned is that much more amazing once you start to play with your ingredients. Here’s how:
- Try swapping out the whiskey and simple syrup for cognac and orgeat (Japanese Cocktail)
- Try a split base with rye and apple brandy
- Use maple syrup instead of simple syrup
Really, the options are endless. The main thing to remember here is that balance is critical. So always keep the acronym K.I.S.S, Keep It Simple Stupid, in mind. It is easy to overpower your Old Fashioned with just one ingredient.
Extra credit: To learn more about the mechanics of a balanced cocktail I recommend grabbing the book Cocktail Codex. It is informative with a slew of fantastic recipes from the crew at Death and Co. Another fantastic reference is Oldfashioned101.com.