What's the Right Way to Make an Old Fashioned?

iStock / iStock

Happy World Whiskey Day! With bourbon outselling vodka in 2014 for the first time in almost a decade, the U.S. and its booming whiskey industry has lots to celebrate. Since we’ve already covered how whiskey is made, we’re marking the day with an Old Fashioned and a dive into the cocktail’s history. There’s plenty of material: its origins are so disputed that an entire book has been devoted to the subject.

If you’ve been out to bars lately, you may have noticed that Old Fashioneds fall into two categories: a sweet, well-garnished and muddled fruity cocktail on the rocks, or an austere mixture of bitters, sugar, and whiskey served with a twist. Here’s the thing: they’re both classic Old Fashioneds. They’re just from different eras.

Dueling Names

This cocktail began its contentious life as an eye-opener that went by the name of Whiskey Cocktail. The mixture of bitters, whiskey, sugar, and ice served up appears in print in the oldest surviving cocktail book, Jerry Thomas’s 1862 edition of How to Mix Drinks. However, its history probably goes back at least to 1806, and maybe even earlier.

In the days of herbal medicine, herbal tinctures known as bitters were mixed with sugar, whatever booze was available, and water. At some point around the 1800s, Americans also started drinking these beverages for fun.

Over time, bartenders began spicing up this cocktail with absinthe or other imported liqueurs that had recently become available. New cocktails were born, but traditional bar patrons started demanding simpler old-fashioned drinks. One throwback was almost exactly the Whiskey Cocktail, but with the addition of a cube. By 1888, this drink had a name—the Old Fashioned.

During this time, the drinking culture had also changed. Instead of wanting to drink the cocktail in one dram, the new generation of drinkers preferred to savor it. Thus, the tradition of serving an Old Fashioned over a large ice cube was born.

Identity Crisis

Between the 1880s and Prohibition, the Old Fashioned also appeared under the names "Old-Fashioned," "Old Fashion," "Old-Fashion," and "Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail." The lack of a standardized name was reflected in the lack of a standardized recipe. As a result, the drink began to change.

Even before Prohibition began, the fruit started piling onto the Old Fashioned. During the Noble Experiment, different liqueurs snuck back into its glass. By the mid-1930s, a heavily garnished Old Fashioned became the rule instead of the exception.

The shift in the cocktail’s identity is seen in the differences between the recipes included in 1932 and 1937 editions of The Savoy Cocktail Book: the 1932 recipe has fruit, but the 1937 edition calls for more fruit and for seltzer water. Despite all the additions, the practice of muddling fruit into the glass with the sugar only joined the process in the 1970s.

Managing Claims

It’s often cited that the Old Fashioned’s 20th century form was born at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, KY. Since the club’s name doesn’t appear in the cocktail writings between 1888 and Prohibition, this claim is shaky at best.

Both Chicago and New York have also claimed it at one point in time. It’s more likely that it originated in one of these cities, but no conclusive historical evidence exists to pinpoint an exact location.

Hit the Lab

The lack of a conclusive definition (or recipe) for an Old Fashioned makes it the perfect drink to showcase a bar or bartender’s personality. To concoct your own house Old Fahioned, experiment with the amount of sugar, types of bitters, and garnishes.

Whiskey Cocktail

[Modified from Jerry Thomas’s Bartender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion.]

2 dashes of bitters
3-4 dashes of gum arabic syrup
2 oz whiskey

Combine over ice in a shaker tin. Shake* and strain into a glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

*Stirring is recommended to provide a richer texture and more attractive presentation.

Old Fashioned

1 raw sugar cube
3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 orange wheels
2 maraschino cherries
Club soda
2 oz whiskey

Place the sugar cube in an Old Fashioned glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube along with a splash of soda water. Add one cherry and one orange and muddle the fruit and sugar together. Add whiskey and fill with ice. Garnish with the remaining cherry and orange wheel.