Ted Danson stood on the shoulders of giants, too. Before Sam, there was only one celebrity bartender, and his name was Jerry Thomas. If you want to understand the structural roots of the Old Fashioned, you start with this guy:
I have had chapters in my life where I was a bon vivant, but they were never celebrated, so another feather in your cap, Mr. Thomas. Jerry Thomas could self-promote, to be sure. Today, Jerry Thomas would have already had a few reality shows and would now be selling highball glasses on QVC. But in 1862 the only choice was to write a book, and so Mr. Thomas did just that.
If whiskey is a seminal fluid (DO NOT Google that, I did and am sorry for it) then Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide was a seminal work. If you want to know the Old Fashioned, even if the book wasn’t seminal, you want the cover of whatever you are going to reference to look like this. Mr. Thomas did not think whiskey a seminal fluid, however, because he did not include it in his recipe for the Old Fashioned. To wit: “Crush a small lump of sugar in a whiskey glass containing a little water, add a lump of ice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a small piece of lemon peel, one jigger Holland gin. Mix with small bar spoon. Serve.”
Here is the Pendennis Club, in Lousville, KY. Around 1906. Kentucky has a county named Bourbon, that is a good start for drink cred. Then, Kentucky boasts this: Frederick Vinson, who later became the 13th Chief Justice of the United States, was born in a Louisa County jailhouse. Judges born in jails and Bourbon, you have my attention. The Pendennis Club is said to be the actual birthplace of the Old Fashioned by a guy named James Pepper.
In 1936 a man named Old Timer wrote a piece for the New York Times where he gave this recipe for the Old Fashioned: “Consider, for instance, the Old-Fashioned cocktail. Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moisted a lump of sugar with Angostura bitter, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large or too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink.”
In 2016, Drinks International named the Old Fashioned the most popular drink in the US. Even in the Midwest, where it is infamously made with sugar water they call “bug juice.”
All of which is cute, but if you are reading this after work, or reading it during work but thinking about after work, before autumn truly sets on us, here is the best recipe, from the good people at Liquor.com:
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 teaspoon water
- 2 ounces bourbon
- Garnish: orange peel
Add the sugar and bitters to a rocks glass, then add the water, and stir until the sugar is nearly dissolved.
Fill the glass with large ice cubes, add the bourbon, and gently stir to combine.
Express the oil of an orange peel over the glass, then drop in.
How and why did the habitual garnish for an OF switch from a maraschino/cocktail cherry to orange zest?
Never tried an Old Fashioned with gin, à la Mr. Thomas, and am intrigued. Maybe a comparison test with the Bourbon version is in order.
The Old-fashioned is a wonderful cocktail; however, I might suggest using simple syrup (in a ratio of two cups sugar to one cup water) if this becomes a regularly imbibed cocktail one makes at home. It simplifies the process, and it creates a much better mixed drink at the end. I find the best combination to be about 3oz. bourbon (I use Bulleit) to about 3/4 oz-1oz. simple syrup. If I may be so bold, I would also suggest trying an aromatic bitter other than Angostura. I prefer The Bitter Truth’s Bogart’s Bitters (their version of Boker’s Bitters – Jerry Thomas’ preferred bitters), or Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Bitters, which adds a nice element of anise to the cocktail.
An all-time classic…so classic, we can’t even figure out its actual origins (now that’s Ivy). My personal preference for old fashioneds (and Manhattans) is to use rye whiskey, especially from Hudson Whiskey/Tuthilltown Distillery, as it adds a nice subtle spiciness that bourbon lacks, and is closer to pre-Prohibition style
At least we didn’t need to touch on the Old Fashioned’s unique Wisconsin-based variant, the brandy old-fashioned, which can be either sweet or sour, and is always served with a muddled orange slice and maraschino cherry. Have had it in Wisconsin, and it’s beloved there (especially at the distinctly-Wisconsin supper clubs), but even if you enjoy brandy, it’s an acquired taste
The term “old-fashioned” was coined in the late 19th century, when cocktails had gotten fancy. An “old-fashioned” was so-called because it referred to a cocktail made in the style from back before they got fancy. In the early 19th century the term “cocktail” referred to a drink combining a spirit (whiskey, gin, rum, whatever was handy) with something sweet, and with something bitter. That the term became attached specifically to a combination of rye (or bourbon), sugar (or simple syrup), and angostura bitters is a historical accident. It originally meant any stripped-down minimalist cocktail in the old style.
The Manhattan and the martini are examples of other variations of the old-fashioned, using vermouth for the sweet in the case of the Manhattan, and using a gin and vermouth combo in the case of the martini. The practice of adding bitters to a martini has died out, but the oldest martini recipes generally call for orange bitters.
For definite history about cocktails (or pretty much anything booze-related), seek out David Wondrich’s work.
I prefer Manhattans to Old Fashioneds, but in either case with rye. Bourbon I usually drink on the rocks. (Or, actually, one big rock.) But if I’m out of rye, I’ll definitely use Bourbon in my Manhattan. Whatever’s handy!
If you make it with unrefined sugar or cane sugar you get closer to the original version of most cocktails. I make simple syrup for Mint Juleps, old fashioned, and will change up the bitters for orange or black walnut. It’s the best cocktail ever, next to the pink gin, ‘cause that one is just navy gin and bitters. Ahhh!!
I’m not sure how this article ties in with ivy-league style and all that, but nonetheless, it’s entertaining. I guess this is the depth of coverage we’re favored with nowadays… drinks and boat shoes. In any case, is the idea that an Old Fashioned is somehow an ivy league drink because it’s called an “Old Fashioned”? People I’ve known from ivy league schools, both in dress and education, tend to have either catholic tastes in drink–enjoying everything from pale ales to Kentucky bourbon to red wine–or are very loyal to a brand of scotch or rye or obscure double IPA or whatever. Perhaps in the end it’s whatever happens to go well with the color of your Shetland sweater, the hue of your seawater-soaked boat shoes, or the condition of your bank account after you’ve shelled out your last hard-earned dollar in a J. Press sale.