Mixology 101: The Oldfashioned

The first known definition of the word “cocktail” was in response to a reader’s letter asking to define the word in the May 6, 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository in Hudson, New York. In the May 13, 1806 issue, the paper’s editor wrote that it was a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar. The first use of the specific name “Old Fashioned” was for a Bourbon whiskey cocktail in the 1880s, at the Pendennis Club, a gentlemen’s club in Louisville, Kentucky. The recipe is said to have been invented by a bartender at that club, and popularized by a club member and bourbon distiller, Colonel James E. Pepper, who brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City. The Pepper family distillery is now known as Labrot & Graham.

There is great contention on the proper way to make an Old Fashioned. Here is one recipe:

  • 50 ml rye whiskey or Bourbon
  • Splash of simple syrup or 1 cube (3.6 g) sugar and just enough water to dissolve it
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • an orange peel

Place sugar (or syrup), bitters, and water in old-fashioned glass. Crush sugar if needed and coat glass. Add 2-3 cubes ice and whiskey. Garnish with twist. I personally like to use raw sugar and dissolve it with the water.

Most modern recipes top off an Old Fashioned cocktail with soda water. Purists decry this practice, and insist that soda water is never permitted in a true Old Fashioned cocktail. Many respected sources (e.g. Maker’s Mark) list an Old Fashioned as containing soda water, forgoing the bitters altogether. In some areas, notably Wisconsin, brandy is substituted for whiskey.

Many bartenders add fruit, typically an orange slice, and muddle it with the sugar before adding the whiskey. This practice likely began during Prohibition as a means of covering the taste of poor alcohol.
An 1895 recipe specifies the following: Dissolve a small lump (about 3 grams) of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger (44 ml) whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.

Purists advocate using just enough plain water (called “branch” water) to fully dissolve the sugar without diluting the whiskey. A 50/50 blend of sugar and water works fine. Bartenders often use a dissolved sugar water pre-mix called simple syrup, which is faster to use and eliminates the risk of leaving undissolved sugar in the drink which can spoil your final sip. Using blended whiskies is not recommended, since the Old Fashioned was designed as a showcase for the fine qualities of your best Bourbon, rye, or Tennessee sipping whiskey. Many drinkers prefer to use rye whiskey because of its complexity. One popular garnish is a Maraschino cherry fastened to the back of an orange wedge using a toothpick. Others prefer to use orange zest with the Maraschino cherry, in order to better bring out the orange oil component of this superb drink.

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