The Old Fashioned - A Cocktail History

The Old Fashioned - A Cocktail History

For many connoisseurs, the Old-Fashioned is synonymous with the word cocktail. It hails back to the early 19th century and is recognised in ‘The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks’ as one of the six basic drinks, along with the Daiquiri, Jack Rose, Manhattan, Martini and Sidecar.

The generally accepted foundation for an Old Fashioned was back in 1806, when in an upscale New York newspaper, The Balance, and Columbian Repository, mentioned off hand the work ‘cock-tail’. This followed with letters to the editorial, demanding a definition to the previously unheard-of liquor. A week later, on May 13, a journalist named Harry Croswell answered the question, defining a cocktail as

“a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”
— Harry Croswel
Though short an orange peel garnish, the recipe is easily recognisable to respectable drinkers as what is now known as an Old Fashioned.

At the time it was also known as a ‘bittered sling’ and was more commonly used as a breakfast drink to ready the day, or even to cure headaches. The years passed, cocktails become more commonplace and complex, and by the 1960s it was quite common for ‘improved’ whiskey cocktails to contain other liqueurs such as orange curacao and absinthe. These grandiose changes to a classic were too much for some of the purists, who would often request for the ‘old-fashioned’ method of mixing for their choice of whiskey cocktail.

In Louisville, Kentucky in 1881, an alternative claim to the originator of the Old Fashioned takes place. The Pendennis Club (which has since been rebuilt) claims that the old fashioned cocktail was actually invented there.

The recipe was said to honour a Master Bourbon Distiller and Kentucky Colonel, who brought the drink to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City. Though this origin seems unlikely due to mentions of ‘old fashioned cocktails’ in the Chicago Daily Tribune in February 1880, it is still an interesting part of the cocktails history

In 1895, George Kappeler wrote one of the most important cocktail books of the era, entitled Modern American Drinks. In this book, he describes the perfect 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.”
— George Kappeler

Since these times, the Old Fashioned has fallen in and out of favour many times, with the most recent being as Don Draper’s (of Mad Men fame) cocktail of choice. With the conception of the cocktail rooted deep in its history, Louisville, Kentucky has named the old fashioned as its official cocktail. For the first two weeks of June every year, the city celebrates ‘Old Fashioned Fortnight’, in which bourbon events and cocktail specials are aplenty, with it all culminating on National Bourbon Day on June 14.

For the Perfect Old Fashioned cocktail recipe, as well as some of its variants, check out our next blog!

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