Elegant and iconic, a little bit sweet and a little bit bitter. Is there any other whiskey-based drink more satisfying than the Old Fashioned? Don't let the name of this cocktail fool you: it's far from old-fashioned, we're talking rather about a drink that has never gone out of style.
Here is a short guide to stimulate conversation while sipping this gem made of American whiskey, sugar, and angostura.
The very definition of a cocktail
Spirit, sugar, water, bitters: that's the technical definition of a cocktail. In a duo of articles in the Federalist newspaper in Hudson, NY, "The Balance and Columbian Repository," the word "cocktail" is mentioned twice in May 1806. The second of these articles talk about these very four components that sound like the recipe for Old Fashioned.
A brief history of the Old Fashioned, the "Whiskey Cocktail"
The (uncertain) origins
Old Fashioned is a cocktail in continuous evolution. Its origins, however, are pretty uncertain: there is not an accredited version of the history of the cocktail, nor someone to be attributed its creation. It is said it was created to correct, with sugar and angostura, the bad taste of smuggled whiskey at the beginning of 1900. Other sources say it was created, for the same reasons, by a collaboration between a Kentucky bourbon distiller, Colonel James E. Pepper, and the bartender of Pendennis Club in Louisville.
The whiskey cocktail
What we do know is that when cocktail recipe books began to appear in the late 19th century, what we would call an Old Fashioned today was often under the title Whiskey Cocktail.
Reading through the pages of various editions of bartender Harry Johnson's "Bartenders' Manual" one can see the evolution of the cocktail over time. In the first edition of 1887, the Whiskey Cocktail recipe features gum syrup, ice, Angostura, or Boker's bitter, a couple of splashes of curaçao, and whiskey. In 1887, it abandons the angostura. In 1900, he replaces the syrup with raw sugar and adds only a couple of splashes of curaçao or absinthe. In each version, he curiously does not fail to add a lemon twist before serving.
The first recipe of Old Fashioned
It is only with "Modern American Drinks", written by George Kappeler and published in the United States in 1895 that, among the plethora of recipes, there is one for an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail that reads as follows:
"Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey glass; add two drops of angostura bitters, a piece of ice, a piece of lemon peel, a dose of whiskey. Stir with a bar spoon and serve by leaving the spoon in the glass."
Fun facts about the Old Fashioned
For $1,500 you can drink the most expensive Old Fashioned around. At the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., for that amount you can sip the "Impeachment" made with 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle and peaches macerated in 1995 Château d'Yquem Sauternes, along with hand-cut ice with flecks of gold leaf. The $70 Iriana double-glazed Old Fashioned glass made by Christofle you can keep though!
The great musician Cole Porter dedicated a verse of a song to the drink that made it so famous that the name "Old Fashioned" also entered common parlance for the typical glass in which the drink is served (a low tumbler). "Make me another Old Fashioned, please!".
In its origins, the cocktail was decidedly drier. Only a teaspoon of sugar was used and, at the customer's discretion, drops of absinthe or orange curaçao. Later, the IBA eliminated these ingredients, adding instead a sweet maraschino cherry as a garnish.