Tales of Cocktails - The Old Fashioned

The History

The Old Fashioned is a drink of history. This cocktail existed before the word cocktail was coined. As far back as the 1860’s people would ask for a drink “made the Old Fashioned way”, hence the name.

It is claimed that the drink was first formalised at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, as is cited in a Chicago Tribune article from February 1880, and then popularised when this version was brought to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York.

However, in Jerry Thomas’ “Bartenders Guide”, essential reading for any mixer of drinks, there is a recipe for an “Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail”. And further reading does show that the first Old Fashioned’s (before they were old fashioned) did use dutch gins as the base. One must remember that this is going back to the 1830’s in the Southern U.S. when ice was not readily available.

These recipes would ask for a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in a dash of bitters and two ounces of water, topped off with an ounce of the aforementioned Genever, Dutch gin. It would be served at room temperature and, most likely with dirty water. I have experimented with these specifications and, whilst it is a fascinating journey to embark upon, I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone.

The Drink

By the late 1800’s the realisation that whiskey (American spelling because we’re still in America) was a far superior base to this combination of ingredients and the first true Old Fashioned’s were roughly standardised.

Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.”

It is one of the first recipes from George Kappelers’ 1895 book “Modern American Drinks”. And is essentially the drink as we see it today.

A sweetening agent, a bittering agent, a slug of good booze, all mixed and chilled and served with something to make it pretty. The base for every cocktail ever made and the first original mixed drink.

However, before watching Don Draper and following his moves, this author recommends that anyone serious about this otherworldly beautiful concoction should get their hands on a copy of David A. Embury’s “Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” from 1953. This seminal work describes in detail the full process and purpose of producing the perfect Old Fashioned which is truly a work of imbibable art.