In motoring terms, there’s a difference between veteran, vintage and classic. The veteran category refers to cars built before World War I, vintage is between the two world wars and classics are those from the post-war period. Bottom line is they’re all old-fashioned, like this featured mixed drink.
The Old-Fashioned is one of the originals when it comes to mixed drinks or cocktails. There’s absolutely no doubt that it is a classic as every bartender knows precisely how to mix one. And it certainly is one of those drinks which will never go out of style because, according to Drinks International, it remains one of the most ordered in the world. That last snippet of information is based on a survey of the top 100 bars worldwide which the magazine did in 2020 – after which it proclaimed that the Old-Fashioned was the number one cocktail for the sixth year running!
As with so many cocktails, it’s a drink that has been around for so long that nobody can say with any definitive certainty how it came about or who specifically developed it.
Its simplicity is its biggest drawcard: sugar, bitters, water and bourbon or rye whiskey – mixed and then garnished with a slice of orange zest and a maraschino cherry.
Wikipedia reports that it’s one of the simpler and earlier versions of cocktails that evolved “even before the development of bartending techniques and recipes in the latter part of the 19th century”. Apparently one of the first documented references or definitions of the word cocktail was in the May 1806 issue of the periodical, Balance and Columbian Repository in Hudson, New York. Wikipedia states that the paper’s editor wrote in response in the 13 May issue, that a cocktail “was a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water and sugar, it was also referred to at that time as a bittered sling”. It’s essentially a description of an Old-Fashioned – but that’s not the full story.
Drinks were so much simpler then but by the 1860s they started becoming more exotic and adventurous. It was apparently common for orange curacao, absinthe, and other liqueurs to be added to the cocktail. These concoctions didn’t meet with the approval of all drinkers however, and those accustomed to simpler cocktails began to ask bartenders for something akin to the pre-1850s drinks. The original concoction, albeit in different proportions, came back into vogue, and was referred to as “old-fashioned”. The most popular of the in-vogue “old-fashioned” cocktails were made with bourbon, according to a Chicago barman, quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1882, with rye being more popular than bourbon.
Historians also frequently reference the claim by the Pendennis Club, a gentleman’s club founded in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky, that the Old-Fashioned cocktail was developed there. The recipe was said to have been invented by a bartender there, in honour of Colonel James E. Pepper, a prominent bourbon distiller, who then took it to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel bar in New York City. That claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, however. Any capable fact checker will find that the Chicago Daily Tribune referenced the Old-Fashioned cocktail in February 1880 – before the Pendennis was even established!
Not that Louisville let that get in the way of a good story. To this day the city claims it as “their” cocktail and spends the first two weeks in June celebrating Old Fashioned Fortnight – culminating in National Bourbon Day on 14 June.
Author of the book, The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore, Robert Simonson corroborates the evolution of the whiskey cocktail becoming the Old-Fashioned. The whiskey cocktail was simply whiskey, sugar, bitters and water and was a well-known drink as early as the 1800s, he wrote.
It wasn’t until the 1870s and 1880s that when bartenders “began adding embellishments to their whiskey cocktails, some customers rebelled against the innovations,” as they preferred the traditional version and would choose to order “old-fashioned whiskey cocktails”.
Hence, the Old-Fashioned cocktail which manages to be an original, a veteran, vintage and a classic!
45ml bourbon or rye whiskey
1 sugar cube
Few dashes of Angostura bitters
Few dashes of plain water
Place sugar cube in Old-Fashioned or rocks glass and saturate with bitter, add few dashes of plain water.
Muddle until dissolved.
Fill the glass with ice cubes and add whiskey. Stir gently.
Garnish with orange slice or zest, and a cocktail cherry. Serve.