History 101: The Old Fashioned

0 Comments | July 4, 2014

The first written mention of the word “cocktail,” in the United States, came in a May, 1806 edition of a Hudson, NY newspaper (The Balance and Columbia Repository). It was the editor’s response to a reader’s question asking, “What is a cocktail?” His answer: a mixture of “spirits, sugar, water, and bitters.” That is the “Old Fashioned” (though in those early years it would have simply been called a “Whiskey Cocktail”), and made with Bourbon or Rye.

This “Whiskey Cocktail” was first mentioned in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 cocktail book (which was the first assemblage of cocktail recipes published). He called for it to be stirred with ice and strained into a glass.

In the early 1800’s, the Whiskey Cocktail was considered a “matutinal” cocktail (i.e., one taken in the morning, before breakfast or on your way to work, as one would down an espresso shot today). It was not sipped or relished, but downed like a shot in one gulp. If you went into a bar in the early 19th century and ordered the Whiskey Cocktail, the bartender would muddle the sugar in the water and bitters, and then place the glass in front of you with a small spoon in the glass and a bottle of bourbon or rye. (Everything used to be “bottle service” back then! Just like when you ordered “straight whiskey”, they’d leave the bottle before you to pour yourself.) You’d then pour in your bourbon or rye, stir it to dissolve the sugar, and then throw it back.

By 1885, it was being served on the rocks or with one large ice chunk, and sipped and enjoyed as we do today.

In 1888, Chicago’s Theodore Proulx (who worked at the Chapin & Gore bars) published his Bartender’s Manual, in which the name “Old Fashioned” was first coined for this cocktail – most likely to distinguish it from the “improved” versions. Like today, people were tweaking with and putting their own spin on the cocktail – “improving” it by changing the base spirit to gin, sherry, brandy; changing the sugar to gum syrup or simple syrup; garnishing with orange or pineapple or cherries; and adding in other spirits like absinthe or maraschino liqueur.

When Prohibition rolled around and the quality of liquor declined, the fruit took on larger importance to help mask the poor quality of the booze. Simple or gum syrups replaced the sugar cube to speed things up and the spoons and “bottle service” vanished – probably because spoons were vanishing into peoples pockets…

By 1935, cocktail books were calling for lemon, orange, and cherry, and a squirt of Seltzer water.

In the 1950-60’s, Vodka rolled in and people turned to that and gin. When you did see an Old Fashioned, it was often still filled with fruit and, by the 1970’s, the fruit was commonly muddled along with the sugar and bitters. That is the Old Fashioned most of us grew up with. Especially here in Wisconsin (though Brandy is our spirit), it’s sort-of our Official State Drink!

In the early 2000’s Esquire magazine’s David Wondrich, and others, began calling for folks to re-appreciate and re-connect to the classic (original) Old Fashioned. No fruit, no syrups, no fuss. Just a beautiful cocktail and a delicious classic.

To the first “cocktail.” The Old Fashioned. Cheers!

2 oz Bourbon (or Rye)
1 Sugar Cube
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
splash Water
Orange Twist

Muddle the sugar, bitters, and water. Add the bourbon and a large ice-cube and stir to chill and dissolve the sugar. Twist and drop a large Orange Twist.

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