The Old Fashioned may well be the first drink to be known as a cocktail. At the very least, it is served in a glass bearing its name, a short tumbler that contains between 6 to 10 ounces of liquid. The drink itself was purportedly invented by a bartender the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, sometime in the 1880s.
I’ve read that the word cocktail was first defined, in an 1806 newspaper, as a mixture of spirits, bitters, sugar, and water. Now, I’m only guessing here, but I imagine that in the 1880s, someone ordered a drink of that nature, using whiskey, at the Pendennis Club, and it was referred to as a cocktail made the old-fashioned way, and the name stuck. I didn’t read that anywhere, I’m just hypothesizing, but I suspect that the Old Fashioned cocktail originated along those lines. Perhaps someone asked for an old-fashioned drink, and the bartender obliged him– the specifics are lost to the ravages of time, but I’m fairly confident it went down something along those lines.
Regardless of its origin, a properly made Old Fashioned truly epitomizes what a cocktail ought to be– liquor, bitterness, sweetness, and water mixed together to create a complex whole that is greater in taste than the sum of its parts.
Not only is there no agreement as to its origin, neither is there a definitive recipe for an Old Fashioned. Some bartenders add soda water, others plain water, some add no water at all. Some use a sugar cube, others use simple syrup. Some use a maraschino cherry, others just the juice from the maraschino cherry container, others use neither. Some use an orange, some don’t. Everyone agrees that bitters are required, but some use Angostura bitters, while some prefer orange bitters; some even use both. Most use bourbon, some choose rye, primarily for its greater complexity. In short, there is no consensus as to what makes for a proper Old Fashioned.
I’ve tried all sorts of configurations, and have settled on the following as my own particular favorite method for mixing one:
2 ounces bourbon whiskey
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Mix the simple syrup, bitters, and whiskey in an old fashioned glass. Add about 6 or 7 ice cubes, and stir gently, allowing some of the ice to melt, for perhaps 30 seconds. Slice a hefty strip, perhaps an inch wide and three inches long, of orange peel and twist it over the cocktail to spritz the surface of the drink with oil. Rub the rim of the glass with the inside of the peel, then insert the peel into the drink. Garnish the top of the drink with a maraschino cherry.
Some explanations for why I make my Old Fashioned the way I do:
simple syrup v. sugar cube – A sugar cube never fully dissolves into the drink, which not only means the final sips have an unpleasant grainy quality, but also that the ratio of sugar will be different throughout the drink. Simple syrup mixes perfectly into the drink.
bourbon v. rye – I am actually quite fond of Old Fashioned cocktails made with rye, but as so many other whiskey drinks are noticeably superior, in my mind anyway, when made with rye, I see the Old Fashioned as a chance for bourbon to shine.
garnish – Many bartenders muddle a cherry and/or an orange peel into the bottom of the glass, with the sugar, before adding the whiskey. I think this makes for a messy, chunky drink, and doesn’t really add anything to the cocktail. My method leaves you with a smooth drink, yet gives you the orange and maraschino essences, as well as the cherry to eat if you so desire.
club soda – I think it serves no purpose. The melted ice adds the appropriate amount of water, so why water it down further?
Experiment. Fine tune my recipe to suit your particular tastes. Just be wary if you order this drink in a bar, as I have found it nearly impossible to find a good one. If you know of a bar that serves a top notch Old Fashioned, please tell me, for I’d love to try one.
As always, coals to Newcastle!