A Brief History of The Old Fashioned

A Brief History of The Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned, a most classic of cocktails that when made well never fails to impress. It’s simplicity is key, but that means the drink is really all about the ingredients, those 3 simple ingredients. But before I dive into the recipe let’s explore the history just a bit. 

The history and nuance of an Old Fashioned is deep enough that whole books have been dedicated to the topic. The Old Fashioned by Robert Simonson is a great one to check out. My rundown will be much shorter, but I always think it’s interesting to have a bit of context for the things we make and consume. 

The official origin of the Old Fashioned is debatable, but the prevailing story is that the drink first started being served in the early 1800’s, but the name came about in the mid-1800’s as a reaction to more complicated cocktails that were becoming popular at the time, ie. adding Chartreuse, Absinthe, Curacao or other liqueurs. Some traditionalists started asking for a cocktail in the old fashioned style - spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. 

Then enter prohibition and the quality of spirits that could be found was significantly rougher given they were being produced illegally. This is where the addition of fruit came into the picture, it helped to soften those rough edges. In the midwest you’ll find that muddled orange and cherry still show up in your old fashioned more often than not and in some spots in Wisconsin you may even find a fruit “flag”. While not a fan of the flag or the addition of Sprite, I do often enjoy the muddled orange and cherry as long as it’s a good quality cherry.

Once it was legal to produce spirits again, the quality of the alcohol got much better and the Old Fashioned went back to being about showcasing a good quality Bourbon or Rye. However, whiskey wasn’t always the go to spirit, it just floated to the top as the most commonly asked for. When the Old Fashioned was first referenced in the early 1800’s it was not a cocktail with a specific spirit, but rather a style of cocktail where you called your base spirit be it Whiskey, Gin, or even Mezcal. So all those “riffs” you see today aren’t really as modern as they may seem. I think this also puts the Old Fashioned in the context that it is most often viewed by bartenders today, a basic formula that can be easily adapted for endless tasty drinks, but that's another blog post. 

For now let’s look at the most common expression of the Old Fashioned:

  • 2 oz bourbon, whiskey, or rye of your choice
  • 1 tsp sugar (most traditionally a sugar cube, but a spoon full of sugar or even simple syrup works great)
  • 3-6 dashes of aromatic bitters (the wide range is to account for both personal taste and inconsistency of dash size from brand to brand.)

When making at home you can build an Old Fashioned in the glass, no need to dirty a mixing glass. If using a sugar cube, soak the cube in bitters, muddle to begin to dissolve, and then add whiskey. Otherwise add all ingredients to your glass and stir to combine. Then add one large ice cube if you have it, or a few smaller cubes to the glass. Stir gently to chill, garnish with an orange twist and enjoy!

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