Issue 30

Libation Conversation: The Old-Fashioned

Libation Conversation: The Old-Fashioned

It seems in many cases that the simpler a drink appears to be at first glance, the more complicated it actually is when examined more fully. Consider the Old-Fashioned; bitters, cherry, orange slice, sugar cube, bourbon, ice. Seems simple enough, but there’s significantly more to this grand potation than meets the eye.

To fully appreciate this drink, its construction, its cultural significance and the controversy it seems to generate, one must look first at its history. The history of the Old-Fashioned is connected to the origins of the cocktail itself. In fact, one of the earliest definitions of the word ‘cocktail’ committed to print appears to describe fairly closely the original Old-Fashioned. The May 13, 1806 edition of the Hudson, NY periodical, The Balance and Columbian Repository, in response to a reader’s inquiry, defines the cocktail in this way:

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

Incidentally, the ‘electioneering’ reference in the above quote refers to the fairly common practice among politicians of the day of plying voters with alcohol throughout their campaigns, specifically on Election Day, which eventually led to widely administered restrictions regarding Election Day alcohol sales, still on the books today in some states and municipalities.

Having been somewhat of a known quantity since the early 1800s, it comes as little surprise that the blueprint for the Old-Fashioned was considered old-fashioned by the time it was first listed as the Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail in George Kappeler’s 1895 book, Modern American Drinks. An unnamed bartender at the Pendennis Club, a private club still in operation in Louisville, Kentucky, is widely credited with having created the drink in the first place.

This brings us to our first controversy-generating point – The Fruit. There is no orange or cherry (muddled or otherwise) mentioned in the recipe for the original Old-Fashioned.

Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail (circa 1895)

1) Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass*
2) Add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey.
3) Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.
*the short, thick-bottomed glass traditionally used for this drink came to be known as an Old-Fashioned glass, long before it was called a ‘rocks’ glass.

Some slight recipe tweaks appeared in time, including the addition of Curacao (mercifully, not the blue stuff), orange bitters, maraschino liqueur, even Absinthe, but the orange slice didn’t appear as an ingredient in an Old-Fashioned until the publication of Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, and then only as a garnish (not muddled). NOTE: Mixology guru Dale DeGroff points out in The Craft of the Cocktail that the Whiskey Cobbler (circa 1862), a precursor to the Old-Fashioned, was shaken with two pieces of orange in the mixing glass. The cherry didn’t make an appearance until the publication of Julien Proskauer’s What’ll You Have? in 1933, where it was listed as an ingredient in the cocktail along with the orange slice (still not muddled). The use of a lemon twist as a garnish persists in this recipe.

Many (but not all) cocktail historians assert that the addition of fruits like orange and cherry into the Old-Fashioned were affectations of Prohibition. During Prohibition, the quantity of spirits available (albeit, by less-than-legal means) to the drinking public remained plentiful but the relative quality level suffered mightily, prompting the addition of a dizzying array of cocktail ingredients whose purpose was to mask the inferior quality of the spirits. Some Old-Fashioned purists view the addition of fruits beyond the lemon twist garnish as ‘frivolous window-dressing’, as Crosby Gaige, president of the New York Wine & Food Society, noted in 1945.

As to the fruit and muddling question in general, opinions and tastes vary. The Joy of Mixology author Gary Regan sums it up in this way: “The fruit question is a serious one, and although many people in the twenty-first century expect a small fruit salad to be muddled into their drink, a good bartender will always ask before proceeding.” It should be noted that Regan himself prefers the ‘fruit salad’ treatment of an Old-Fashioned to the historically accurate one, as does the aforementioned DeGroff.

Controversy-generating point #2 – Soda, Water, or none of the above. In early Old-Fashioned recipes, a small amount of water was called for only as a means to dissolve the sugar, which dissolves much less readily in alcohol. NOTE: the substitution of simple syrup for the sugar and water in an Old-Fashioned is an effective way to achieve the desired cocktail flavor profile while eliminating the possibility of grittiness from un-dissolved sugar.  Some later recipes called for an increased amount of water or the addition of soda water, but these additions are viewed by many Old-Fashioned aficionados as detrimental to the cocktail. As cocktail expert Robert Hess puts it, “Such a sin should be viewed in the same light as ordering a finely cooked steak in a classy restaurant, and then smothering it with ketchup.”

As with all cocktails, there are no absolutes regarding the preparation of an Old-Fashioned. Research and experimentation will in time lead you to the perfect recipe for your palate. In that light, I leave you with the following Old-Fashioned recipe bestowed generously upon me by a member of a prominent small-batch bourbon producing family:

Old-Fashioned (family recipe)

1.5 to 2oz Small-batch bourbon
1-2 cubes Sugar in the Raw
2 dashes each Orange Bitters (ex. Stirrings Blood Orange Bitters) & Angostura Bitters
½ of an Orange slice (1/4” thick)
Section of Orange zest

Gear needed:
-A good rocks glass with a wide bottom
-A bar spoon with a disc end
-Several large solid ice cubes
-Cocktail napkin

1) Place the orange slice in the bottom of the rocks glass.
2) Place the cube(s) of Sugar in the Raw on a cocktail napkin and apply 2 dashes of each variety of bitters to the sugar. The cocktail napkin is there to absorb any excess bitters.
3) Add bitters-soaked sugar cubes to the glass and muddle together with only the pulp of the orange. Avoid the pith as it contains bitter elements. Muddling with the disc-end of the bar spoon instead of a traditional muddler makes this step easier. 4) Add one large solid ice cube to the glass along with half of the bourbon. Stir for 30 seconds.
5) Add one more ice cube and the rest of the bourbon. Stir briefly. Add the rest of the ice.
6) Cut a section of fresh orange peel with as little pith as possible, rim the glass with it and drop it into the drink. Enjoy!

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell, cocktail enthusiast and self-avowed ‘spirits nerd’, is the Luxury Brands Specialist for Sterling Distributing Company in Omaha. He talks incessantly (even occasionally to other people) about the virtues of what he calls ‘investigative imbibement’. An eternally fascinated student of the distillers’ art, he encourages any like-minded individuals to engage him in spirited discussion at

No comments

Write a comment
No Comments Yet! You can be first to comment this post!

Only registered users can comment.