In my post on the Manhattan, I included an excerpt from a legal case in 1908 where the definition of a cocktail was quoted from the "Century Dictionary" as being "an American drink, strong, stimulating, and cold, made of spirits, bitters, and a little sugar, with various aromatic and stimulating additions."
This pretty well sums up the Old Fashioned. Originally named so in the late 19th century because even by then this was considered the "Old Fashioned" way of making a cocktail, but how did we get there?
As early as 1803 the cocktail was known well enough to be mentioned in print, without any explanation as to what a cocktail was.
An 1818 edition of the "International Steam Engineer" ran an article titled "The Card Man".
It is the brief account of a man named "Brown" talking to "Jones" on the pros and cons of dealing with union labor. Brown tells Jones:
"...Then there's Pete's place down on the corner where I get my cocktail. Now I am particularly fond of my cocktail ; it's got to be just so, and I seldom can find a union bartender that knows just how to mix a cocktail, but that fellow down at Pete's"
This seems to indicate that union bartenders have always been slow to adopt! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Up until the 1830's these beverages were served at room temperature or even boiling hot. When ice become more readily available it was a total game changer for the cocktail. It was only then that the cocktail really began to take hold.
At some point in the late 1800's, when the Manhattan and Martini started to become really popular, if a customer wanted what had up till then been simply a "whisky cocktail" they would order one to be made in the "Old-Fashioned" way to make sure they got what they wanted.
The first recipe in print appears under the name "Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail" in George Kappler's 1895 book "Modern American Drinks: How to mix and serve all kinds of cups and drinks".
Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail - Kappler 1895
David Wondrich found an article from 1899 in the Chicago Chronicle indicating even this early that 2" cubes, or even an ice ball carved to fit the glass perfectly, were used by some of the more ambitious saloons. It's somehow reassuring for me to know there is historical precedence in this practice.
|St. Charles Hotel bar in Toronto, Canada - 1911|
|What not to make! Still the official IBA recipe.|
If properly made, this is a truly magnificent cocktail. The principal reason that it does not enjoy an even greater popularity than it now claims is that what is usually served as an Old-Fashioned is actually a short Highball rather than a cocktail. Water, either plain or charged has no more place in an Old-fashioned than it has in a Manhattan or a Martini. The water is usually added ostensibly for the purpose of dissolving the sugar.
You can make perfect Old-Fashioneds only by using sugar syrup. However, if you do not have sugar syrup available you can make a fairly passable cocktail by using loaf sugar as follows: Put one medium-sized lump of sugar in the Old-Fashioned glass and add enough lukewarm water to cover it completely. Watch carefully until the sugar starts to dissolve and then pour off all the water. Add three dashes of Angostura, crush the sugar with a muddler, and blend sugar and bitters thoroughly. Add a small quantity of whisky and stir with a small spoon until the sugar is completely dissolved and blended with the liquor. Then, and then only, complete the cocktail. It takes about twenty minutes to make a satisfactory Old-Fashioned starting with dry sugar; it takes about two minutes starting with sugar syrup. Also, the sugar syrup makes a smoother, better drink. Therefore, let's make our Old-Fashioneds this way, using medium-sized Old-Fashioned glasses (about 5 to 7 ounces):
OLD-FASHIONED DE LUXE Pour into each glass 1 to 2 teaspoonfuls simple syrup and add 1 to 3 dashes Angostura. Stir with a spoon to blend the bitters with the syrup. Add about 1 oz. whisky and stir again. Add 2 large cubes of ice, cracked but not crushed (see page 100). Fill glass to within about 3/8" of top with whisky and stir again. Add a twist of lemon and drop peel in the glass. Decorate with a maraschino cherry on a spear. Serve with short stir rod or Old-Fashioned spoon.
I have been intentionally somewhat indefinite about the quantity of sugar and bitters for two reasons. First, you should experiment and determine for yourself just how sweet you like the drink and just how much of the bitters flavor suits you best. Second, I have stated the recipe in terms of filling your Old-Fashioned glasses to within about 3/8" of the top and I do not know the exact size of your glasses. Tastes vary somewhat, of course, but I have found that most people like about 1 teaspoonful of sugar and 1 to 2 dashes of Angostura to each 2 ounces of whisky.
Also, please note that I have suggested only a cherry and a bit of lemon peel for decorations. You will frequently find Old-Fashioneds served with lemon, orange, cherry, and pineapple. The bartenders' manuals of the Gay Nineties were replete with illustrations of cocktails, Sours, Crustas, Smashes, Cobblers, and other drinks decorated with all the above fruits together with strawberries, grapes, raspberries, etc., according to the available supply and the fancy of the writer. At the other extreme stand those who contemptuously refer to any cocktail decoration as "the garbage."
My own opinion is that fruit flavors and liquors blend exquisitely and that, for a midafternoon or an evening drink, and Old-Fashioned is greatly improved in its over-all appeal by the judicious addition of a few fruits. Fruits, however, properly belong at the end of a dinner rather than at the beginning. Accordingly, when serving Old-Fashioneds as an aperitif, I recommend using only the lemon peel with no fruit at all, or at the most, a cherry or a slice of orange.
Note that in the Old-Fashioned the only modifying agents used are the bitters and sugar. The reaction time of this cocktail is slower than that of a Martini both because of its sugar content and because the whisky is slower than gin. Don't be deceived by this. It is not a lighter drink than the Martini; it is stronger. Its action is merely delayed.
As an occasional variation in you Old-Fashioned try adding a teaspoonful of the juice from your bottle of maraschino cherries or a dash of curaçao, Cointreau, Chartreuse, or Liqueur Strega.
Old-Fashioneds are also frequently made with liquors other than rye or bourbon. SOUTHERN COMFORT makes and excellent OLD-FASHIONED but is a bit on the sweet side. This can be offset by using less sugar. There are also GIN OLD-FASHIONEDS, SCOTCH OLD-FASHIONEDS, BRANDY OLD-FASHIONEDS, RUM OLD-FASHIONEDS, APPLEJACK OLD-FASHIONEDS, etc. All are made exactly the same as the Whisky Old-Fashioned except for the liquor used. With Gin and Rum Old-Fashioneds, orange bitters may be substituted for or used in combination with Angostura.A nice treatment overall. David's approach is a solid one. By his time, the addition of "charged" water and extra garnishes was already in use, and he rightfully discourages the practice.
Luckily today we are seeing big trend in getting "back to the basics" and this drink is getting back to it's roots.
Apparently there are even improvements still to be discovered as well. Jaimie Bourdreau recently posted a recipe for an "old fashioned simple syrup".
The Roomer's hotel bar in Frankfurt (winner of the 2010 BCB "Bar Team of the Year" award) had a house made old fashioned simple syrup they used with great results, not only in their old fashioned but in other drinks as well. Whip up a batch and see what you think!
My approach in making an Old Fashioned is guest based. Do they like their drinks on the sweet side? I may add a (luxardo or house made) maraschino cherry. On the medium side? Skip the cherry, add an orange peel. Dry? Lemon peel works great.
I also try to get a feel for their whiskey preferences. "Soft Corn" (examples: Buffalo Trace or Dickel Old No. 12), "Sweet Wheat" (Maker's Mark or Old Weller), "Rich and Oaky" (Eagle Rare, Ridgemont Reserve 1792, Wild Turkey 101) or "Spicy Rye" (Four Roses Bourbon, Rittenhouse Rye, Sazarac Rye, Woodford Reserve).
This is also the benchmark drink for whiskey so once you get a feel for how your favorite brands do in this drink, it's a great way to judge a new bottle that you are trying for the first time.
When making this drink for myself I tend to use only an orange peel. That could change depending on the choice of whiskey used. A spicy rye tends to be improved more by lemon than orange. If I want one for dessert, I'll go for a soft corn and add the orange and the cherry.
If you can arm yourself with the customer's flavor preferences (sweet vs. dry) and their favorite style of whiskey, then your chances of successfully building your guest a drink they will love will improve dramatically.
So you've quizzed yourself or your guest and you're ready to build your drink. Here's the basic recipe.
2 oz Whiskey
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 sugar cube
1. Place cube in bottom of an old fashioned glass.
2. Add the bitters directly to the cube and let saturate.
3. Crush the cube up in the bottom of the glass.
4. Add 1/2 oz of Whiskey of choice and stir to dissolve most of the sugar. No need to try to get it all dissolved, a small amount of grains in bottom is desirable.
5. Add some ice and stir, you want to get a little extra dilution in this step. You are also starting to chill the glass.
One last note. You will need to serve this with a stir stick of some sort so you can continue to stir up the sugar on the bottom of the glass as the drink is consumed. This is part of the fun, and to neglect the stir stick in an old fashioned would be downright uncivilized.
This drink is much quicker and easier to make if you use simple syrup. The texture will be smoother and the flavor profile is the same. You just pour a little (1 tsp max) of simple syrup in the bottom of the glass, and add your bitters to the syrup.
If you want to go this route, go all the way and make some old fashioned simple syrup for some great added depth of flavor. Of course there's nothing wrong with using regular simple syrup either, it's easy peasy.
For that true "old fashioned" experience though, go for the sugar cube at least once to see if you like it.