The Old Fashioned’s Grandfather

When I was asked to contribute a weekly article on cocktails for the good folks of AARP, there was no doubt in my mind what the first article would cover. The Old Fashioned is one of my favorite cocktails. Unfortunately, most restaurants and bars, when tasked with serving one, give the customer a fruit mashup of booze, fruit, ice and who-knows-what-else. The truth is, the original recipe for the Old Fashioned is deceptively simple and delicious.

First, a little history. During the 1700s throughout the 1800s the “cocktail” was simply a discrete type of beverage. It held the same position as a punch, a julep, a daiquiri, a phlegm-cutter, an eye-opener or any number of catchily named alcoholic beverages. This is in stark contrast with today, where a “cocktail” is the umbrella term for all types of alcoholic drinks. But what exactly is/was a “cocktail”?

There are many stories about how the term “cocktail” came to be used, but rather than focus on conjecture, let’s look at how a “cocktail” was defined. In 1806, a reader wrote in to the editor of the Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York asking for the definition of the word “cocktail” which the editor had used in the prior week when discussing the ledger of a failed politician. In response, the editor wrote:

Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters–it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.

So the recipe for a “cocktail” was simple – any kind of spirits, sugar, water and bitters. So what does this have to do with the Old Fashioned? Great question! After the Civil War, bartenders started embellishing their “cocktails” by adding additional ingredients. Orange curacao, absinthe and other flavored liqueurs were added to their cocktails. Much like today, when a favorite recipe is altered or a favorite food disappears from a menu, the people who wanted the original got mad. The old timer would belly up to the bar and or a cocktail, the old fashioned way. That was the clue to the bartender that this particular customer did not want anything added to their cocktail. As time passed, ordering a “Cocktail, the old fashioned way” was shortened to simply ordering an “Old Fashioned.”

The recipe for an Old Fashioned then is simply that of the original cocktail – any kind of spirit, sugar, water and bitters. This recipe is so simple and versatile you can have a Whiskey/Rum/Tequila/Brandy Old Fashioned. The easiest form of sugar is a simple syrup. Simply mix one part water with one part sugar until combined. And for the bitters, Angostura bitters from Trinidad & Tobago are the most widely available and the standard bearer of cocktail bitters. And the water? That comes in the form of ice. As you stir the cocktail, the ice melts and adds the requisite water to your drink. Below is my preferred recipe for an Old Fashioned. You can certainly modify it by adding more or less sugar or bitters and whatever spirit you prefer.

Old Fashioned
2 ounces liquor of choice
.50 ounces simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

-Add all ingredients to a rocks glass with ice and stir. Garnish with a lemon or orange peel.

Rye Whiskey Old Fashioned

Give the Old Fashioned’s Grandfather, the original cocktail, a try, and let us know what you think in the comments.

Cheers!