The Old Fashioned: Discovering Classic Cocktails

Old Fashioned Cocktail in a Modern Glass with a Large Ice Cube and Orange Twist
Image Credit: cocktail.oldfashioned [Instagram]

The Old Fashioned.

The archetypal “cocktail”. The first. The one from which all others followed.

Spirit, Sugar, Bitters and Water.

As simple and flexible a recipe as you could imagine. [Spoiler] we probably won’t be finding the perfect version this time around.

So what are it’s origins ?

In his PDT Cocktail Book, Jim Meehan highlights that in 1806, the word cocktail was described in the Balance & Columbian Repository newspaper as,

“a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”.

1806. So the origins of this cocktail date back 215 years.

Robert Simonson’s brilliant book “The Old Fashioned” continues to give us the low down.

He describes how it was originally known as the Whiskey Cocktail served up without ice, knocked back in the morning as an “eye opener”.

From the 1870s more and more liqueurs became available to bartenders who began to experiment, creating their versions of the “improved” Whiskey Cocktail.

So as historical record would have it, the original whiskey cocktail became so bastardised over time that our old school imbibers no longer knew what to expect when ordering one. They therefore took to asking for a whiskey cocktail “the old fashioned way”.

Following the repeal of prohibition in 1933 it became commonly made with muddled orange and cherries.

By modern times, it had largely disappeared.

Along with the modern resurgence of 1960s slim cut suits and skinny ties, the rediscovery or comeback of the Old Fashioned can be attributed almost exclusively to Don Draper and AMC’s Mad Men.

What is the coolest fella on television drinking ?

The World followed suit.

Don Draper stands at a bar with Conrad Hilton making the pair an Old Fashioned cocktail.
Image Credit: AMC

The above is indeed Don Draper making Conrad Hilton an Old Fashioned. Safe to say it’s not the way I’m going to recommend you do it but cool nonetheless. For ease here’s the video, because as if you’re not going to watch that.

So let’s get back to it. How do you make one ?

I recommend you don’t do it like Don unless you want a watery whiskey fruit salad. But if you do, go right ahead, what’s important is that you make it the way you enjoy it.

I’ll explain how I make and enjoy an Old Fashioned, I think it’s a pretty solid formula.

I stay true to the fact this is a whiskey cocktail. I realise it doesn’t have to be, but it is for me.

Rather than rye, I tend to reach for bourbon. Eagle Rare for everyday (not that I drink every day), EH Taylor when I’m flush.

2:1 Demerara syrup for sweetness and textural interest without the unpleasant inconsistent flavour and grit of a partially dissolved sugar cube.

Angostura and an orange twist, obligatory of course.

The Old Fashioned

60ml (2oz.) Eagle Rare or EH Taylor Small Batch

1 teaspoon 2:1 Demerara Syrup

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Garnish with an Orange Twist

Build in your finest Old Fashioned Glass. Add a large ice cube and stir to chill and dilute, you’re aiming for around 20% dilution so your final drink will be about 80ml.

Express an orange twist over the cocktail and drop into the glass.

Enjoy, whilst watching Ad Men from the 1960s go about their fantastical smoking and drinking adventures, inexplicably doing little to nothing else.

Final thoughts,

I would hazard a guess that drinking an old fashioned today is more of a refined experience than it was 200 years ago.

Or is it ? Has it really changed that much at all ?

It seems all that really happened was that we tried to improve it over the last couple of centuries and failed. We came full circle, back to where it all started.

A drink conceived so long ago hasn’t really been made that much better. All we’ve managed to do is smooth out the edges a little, the heart of the concept remains.

I love that. I love the idea that we couldn’t make it better. If anything we made it worse, eventually seeing the error of our ways.

I think my whole fascination with classic cocktails is played out in that premise. The reality that the drink then is still almost always the best version of the drink now.

This cocktail represents living history, it resisted the tests of time and rose from the ashes; albeit with a little help from Don.

It’s enchanting to me that just so much has changed since 1806, but we’re still drinking this drink.

The Old Fashioned Way.

I’m sampling the world’s finest drinks and cigars and writing about it. Interested in sharing? Let me know what you’re discovering @theepicure

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