The Old Fashioned is among the pantheon of original cocktails. A recipe rooted deep in the definition of “cocktail” itself, it is as close to cocktail truth as can be imagined. A sublime and powerful combination of bourbon or rye, a bit of sugar and a dash of bitters to create a fully formed structure in its own right, while also acting as a blueprint for the endless variations being mixed by experts behind the bar today.
Each year, Drinks International asks 100 of the best bars in the world to rank their bestselling classic cocktails. For seven years running, Old Fashioned reigned supreme. However, in their 2022 list, the Negroni supplanted the champion. “The king is dead, long live the Negroni,” list-compiler Hamish Smith wrote on their website.
If you are one to be disgruntled by the unseating by such a drink as a Negroni, then you understand the nature of an Old Fashioned.
A popular theory has been that the Old Fashioned originated at the Pendennis Club, a private social club in Louisville, Kentucky. As the story goes, the cocktail was created by bartender Mart Cuneu in honor of Colonel James E. Pepper – a prominent Kentucky distiller – and Col. Pepper brought the cocktail to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.
To this day, the Old Fashioned is still planted firm in the city’s identity. In 2015, Louisville named the Old Fashioned as the official cocktail of the city and each year, from June 1 – 14, they celebrate the drink during Old Fashioned Fortnight.
In his book, Imbibe!, however, cocktail historian David Wondrich outlines that there are earlier references to “old fashioned cocktails” centered in Chicago, and include an 1880 mention in the Chicago Tribune, predating the club’s founding.
Celebrated mixologist Dale Degrof points out in his book, The Craft of the Cocktail, “There are two warring camps of Old Fashioned drinkers: those who muddle the fruit and those who don’t.” Degrof points to the 1862 whiskey cobbler being shaken with two pieces of orange, making it more than just “sweetened whiskey.”
Others, like Christopher Kimball, founder of Milk Street, prefer to keep fruit out of the equation, telling The Daily Beast in 2021, “This is not a fruit cocktail.” (Kimball’s recipe, one he touts as spending much time perfecting, also includes both rye and bourbon. The spiciness of the rye balancing out the sweetness of the bourbon).
Either way, citrus or not, in the Old Fashioned, the spirit is the star.
Toward the end of the 19th century, bartenders couldn’t keep well enough alone, and were experimenting with ingredients like absinthe, orange curacao, other liquors and vermouth. At a time when people were experimenting with advancing technologies – such as the phonograph, the telegraph, and the telephone – why wouldn’t bar goers in the late 1890’s appeal to their bartenders for something simple, rooted in the past, and as delicious as ever.
It’s no wonder that for the past decade – with the rapid changes in technology, global pandemics and a feeling of general discord – we gravitate to a timeless cocktail with a boozy punch and a (comparatively) simple origin story. Nostalgia can be a toxic impulse, but it’s comforting (and delicious) to revisit something Old Fashioned.
Where to find it: Find the Straight Bourbon Whiskey at Whistling Andy Distillery, 8541 Montana Highway 35, Bigfork and North Fork rye and black label at Glacier Distilling Company, 10237 U.S. Highway 2 E., Coram. Or visit wistlingandy.com and glacierdistilling.com for more information and spirit locations.
2 ounces of Bourbon or Rye whiskey
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 sugar cube (or substitute 1 teaspoon of simple syrup)
Few dashes plain water
How to make:
Muddle sugar cube in old fashioned glass and add 2 dashes of bitters plus a dash of plain water.
Add ice cubes (or one large cube)
Garnish with orange twist (and cocktail cherry if desired)
For a Flathead Valley twist, use Glacier Distilling Company’s North Fork, a traditional American style rye whiskey with a bit of spice and earthy roundness or North Fork Black Label, their rye aged for five years with a final finish in a bourbon barrel. Or try Straight Bourbon Whiskey from Whistling Andy Distillery. A lower corn component cuts back on the sweetness while developing a complex back palate.
Jerry Thomas’ Bartender Guide introduces the cocktail section of his book with:
• The “Cocktail” is a modern invention, and is generally used on fishing and other sporting parties, although some patients insist that it is good in the morning as a tonic.
• Designed to alleviate stomach ailments, Angostura aromatic bitters were first produced as a medicinal tincture by Dr. Johann Siegert in 1824. Born in 1796, Siegert lived in the town of Angostura, Venezuela with his family where her perfected his formula as an elixir for soldiers.
• George Bernard Shaw: “Whisky is liquid sunshine.”
• Mark Twain: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”