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All About the Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Posted by Colonel Bourbon on

As whiskey, particularly bourbon, has made a comeback, the Old-Fashioned cocktail is now in fashion. This blog is all about the time-honored mixed drink.

History of the Old-Fashioned

The history of whiskey is full of legend and myth, and the same is true of this cocktail. Truth never got in the way of a good story. The "whiskey cocktail" first showed up in the first decade of the 1800s. It was a mix of the liquor, bitters, sugar, and water. It was served at room temperature, as there was generally no ice at the time.

One of the legends is that the drink was "invented" at the Pendennis Club, a private club in Louisville, Kentucky. As the story goes, a gentleman asked for a whiskey club "the old fashioned way," without all the other stuff in it, or words to that effect. The bartender proceeded to mixed a drink as it was done in the early 1800s, without any new ingredients newly available. But he did include ice. Supposedly the not-so-new drink recipe made its way to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.

All About the Old-Fashioned Cocktail

(Photo: the Old Fashioned cocktail, with ice ball and twist. Creative Commons, Wikipedia.)

Old time recipe

In 1895, Modern American Drinks, a recipe book by George Kappeler included an "Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail":

“Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass." 

Prohibition changes the recipe

We don't know if the gentleman at the Pendennis Club who wanted his drink the old-fashioned way was around to see what Prohibition did to cocktails in the 1920s. With the shortage of good quality liquor, the mixed drinks were mixed up a big more, adding other ingredients to mask the lack of quality. Citrus was then widely available, and this was often added to the recipe.

As Broadway theatrical producer Crosby Gaige (1882-1949), who wrote about food and fine wine said “Serious-minded persons omit fruit salad from ‘Old-Fashioneds,’ while the frivolous window-dress the brew with slices of orange, sticks of pineapples, and a couple of turnips.”

The 20th Century

After Prohibition fell in America, bourbon whiskey, neat or on the rocks, and mixed in cocktails like the Old Fashioned lubricated  business and pleasure of in the country. Conglomerates like Schenley's  Distillers Corporation, which occupied several floors of the Empire State Building in its heydey , mass-distributed whiskeys and whiskies. It was the age of the "three martini lunch" and of course the three of many kinds of alcohol.

Harry Truman, America's bourbon president, and the Truman Old-Fashioned

Bourbon was President Harry Truman's preferred drink. In fact, he and his wife Bess often enjoyed Old Fashioneds for cocktail hour. As we wrote in a previous blog post "Harry S. Truman, The Bourbon President":

"Dave McCullough, in his 1992 biography of the 33rd president, tells this story:

'In the evening before dinner (Truman) and Bess would relax with a cocktail in the so-called ‘sitting hall,’ but as J.B. West remembered, it took a while for the staff to learn their tastes. On an evening when Bess first ordered old fashioneds, the head butler Alonzo Fields, a proudly accomplished bartender, had fixed the drinks his usual way, with chilled glasses, an ounce of bourbon each, orange slices, a teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of bitters. But the night following she had asked that the drinks not be made quite so sweet and so Fields had tried another recipe. 

This time she waited until morning to complain to J.B. West. They were the worst old-fashioneds she had ever tasted. She and the President did not care for fruit punch. West spoke to Fields who, his pride hurt, poured her a double bourbon on ice and stood by waiting for the reaction as the first lady took a sip. ‘Now that's the way we like our old fashioneds!’ she said, smiling.”

Mad Men and Don Draper

The Mad Men TV series (2007-2015) re-introduced audiences to bourbon and the Old-Fashioned. The series about advertising men working Madison Ave in the early 1960s featured plenty of whiskey and whiskey cocktails. In the late 20th century and early 2000s, bourbon was just making a comeback, after having fallen out of favor in the 1970s and 1980s, as vodka and other drinks dominated the scene.

Here's a particularly fun scene, of Don Draper making Old-Fashioneds for "Connie," a stranger who unbeknownst to Draper, was Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels. 

Don Draper's Old Fashioned Recipe

  • In shaker, add ice, 2 ounces of Rye whiskey, 1 1/2 ounces of club soda and stir.
  • In a rocks glass/ lowball, add one sugar cube and four dashes of Angostura bitters.
  • Muddle (gently mash to release the juices)
  • Place ice in the glass, with the muddled/mashed sugar cube and bitters.
  • Pour shaker into the glass
  • Add orange slice.

Mad Men's Don Draper Old Fashioned

(Photo: Madison Ave, home of the advertising agency and Don Draper's ad agency. Creative Commons, Wikipedia)

With bourbon back in prime time, the Old-Fashioned has made a comeback. It's recipe varies widely, from the classic, to the addition of fruit and even other liquors. For example, there is the Wisconsin Old Fashioned, with brandy and lemon lime soda. The theory is that many Wisconsinites, having a German heritage, preferred brandy.

We personally prefer our old-fashioned to be old-fashioned, closer to what was allegedly served to the gentleman at the Pendennis Club, as opposed to the concoctions necessitated by Prohibition, and served still to this day.

Worse come to worse, we can always ask for our favorite bourbon, neat.

If want some more Old-Fashioned recipes, go here.

Finally, the Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail is part of American culture. In the 1963 comedy film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the pilot played by Jim Backus goes to make a cocktail, leaving his passenger, Buddy Hackett, to fly the plane.

When he is asked,  "What if something happens?", Backus replies, "What could happen to an old-fashioned?"

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