When asked to give the best example of a great American mixed-drink, no doubt many a spirit-purist would cite the Old Fashioned as the definitive classic cocktail. According to frontier legend, the first use of the name “Old Fashioned” was with a kind of Bourbon whiskey cocktail served at the Pendennis Club, a gentlemen’s club in Louisville, Kentucky, back in the 1880s. The recipe, supposedly invented by a bartender at the Pendennis, was also popularized by Colonel James E. Pepper, a regular there at the club who is later was said to have brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City. On the other hand, historians would argue that the term “Old Fashioned” was already in use around the same time Pendennis Club was established (Editor’s Note: Indeed it was, and according to mixologist Robert Hess, the beverage is actually a traditional “Whiskey Cocktail, served old fashioned” and was likely stated as such, hence the origin of its popular name today. This title dates back to at least a year prior to the opening of the Pendennis). But all theories regarding its origin put aside, the heart of the debate that rages over the Old Fashioned today has the most to do with what goes in the damned thing.
The basic ingredients in the recipe appear to have been immortalized in print three-quarters of a century earlier than beverages were served at the Pendennis, in response to a letter asking to define the word “cocktail” in the May 6, 1806 issue of the New York Balance and Columbia Repository. The May 13 issue that would follow featured a note from the editor, who described it as a potent concoction of “spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
With all due respect to the years lapsing between, at this point we’ll fast forward to 1948, and the release of David A. Embury’s seminal testament on the art of crafting classy mixed beverages The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. The reason for this was perhaps best summed up in the author’s views regarding the creation of any good cocktail beverage, which stated that the ideal mixed drink “should be made from good-quality, high-proof liquors”, and “should whet rather than dull the appetite. Thus, it should never be sweet or syrupy, or contain too much fruit juice, egg or cream.” Following Embury’s guidelines goes directly against practices maintained during the prohibition period, which involved heavy use of sugars, syrups, and fruits to hide the flavor of poor-quality liquors. This being said, we’ll skip straight to Embury’s notion that the over-use of sugar or fruity elements (both of which are called for in most Old Fashioned recipes) will need to be something to avoid when mixing this concoction correctly.
That being said, we might as well get right to the debate over the recipe. Embury recalls the recipe for an Old Fashioned as follows:
* 12 parts American whiskey
* 1 part simple syrup
* 1-3 dashes Angostura bitters to each drink
In an old-fashioned glass, add bitters to simple syrup and stir. Add about 1 ounce of whiskey and stir again. Add two cubes of cracked, but not crushed, ice and top off with the rest of the whiskey. Twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with the lemon peel and a maraschino cherry.
Observing this recipe, we see all the fine elements of a true American cocktail. Embury carefully blends the bitters with the simple syrup before adding just enough whiskey to dilute the thickened flavors. Then we add two cubes (only two) to the mixture, which will almost immediately begin to melt slowly, hence further diluting the the whiskey, removing a bit of the edge and preventing the taste buds from being “paralyzed” by high alcohol content, yet all the while allowing the more subtle nuances and flavors to extend beyond the “bite” of the spirit (this would be similar to the effect of “bruising” gin or vodka when making a martini using the preferred “shaken, not stirred” method). Finally, we top the rest of the beverage off with more whiskey, drop in a single cherry for a hint of fruity sweetness, and twist a lemon peel to coat the surface of the drink with its aromatic oils, thus completing the drink.
So essentially all you’re really drinking is whiskey, only mildly diluted, subtly seasoned and slightly sweetened. This, compared to other “classic beverages” including the martini, which only consists of two elements with a small garnish ranging from olives to onions, begins to create a pattern of simple drinks which use sparring ingredients to produce a pleasant blend of the right elements, rather than a mess of too many. I must quote Patrick Gavin Duffy, author of the classic manual The Bartender’s Guide, who once said, “The majority… of cocktails are wholesome and well-concocted, but we cannot approve of those which include Gin, Scotch, Brandy, Vermouth and Cream in one drink.” Similar views were expressed by chef James A. Beard when he noted that “the ideal cocktail is a blend, not a conflict of flavors. Strange mixtures were common in speakeasies, partly because bartenders were forced to conceal the poor quality of their liquors.”
This being said, we’ll now look at the other recipes… and some of the elements they introduce, thus endangering the virginal purity of the truly perfect Old Fashioned cocktail. Wikipedia notes that “most modern recipes top off an Old Fashioned cocktail with soda water. Purists decry this practice, and insist that soda water is never permitted in a true Old Fashioned cocktail.”
And yet a handful of “respected sources” state that an Old Fashioned should contain soda water, forgoing the bitters altogether, as expressed by Maker’s Mark, for instance. Esquire Magazine also suggests that soda water be used, though they keep bitters in the mix, excluding instead any garnishes with a recipe calling for 1 sugar cube, 3 dashes Angostura bitters, club soda, and 2 ounces rye whiskey.
At the official sites of Jim Beam and Evan Williams brands, the recipe hits closer to home along the lines of Embury’s original, though both include the addition of an orange slice. The Evan Williams recipe does call for an interchangeable splash of soda or water, along with the simplistic instructions to “build in an old fashioned glass filled with ice cubes”. Continuing to browse the web for recipes, one of my personal favorites, the Bulleit Bourbon company, doesn’t list the beverage among the drinks on its site at all (though I must note their curious take on the classic “Whiskey and Ginger Ale”, which called for 1/3 oz of Bulleit Bourbon and 2 oz of Sweet Vermouth, served over ice in a rocks glass. Indeed, something about the inclusion of the word “ginger ale” in the name of the drink suggests to me that it should have been included as an ingredient… but regardless, I won’t rag them for the typo ’cause I like their product so dang much)!
Other atrocities which have been included in the Old Fashioned as the years go by may have included the addition of even more fruits to the mix, additional orange slices, or even orange slices paired with lime wedges and cherries pinned to each with toothpicks. Worst of all, in a fix I’ve heard rumors of bartenders using cola in the mix, as opposed to soda. Just last night for instance, an Old Fashioned I ordered arrived to me from across the bar with a curious dark, almost purplish color, which I suspected may have been the result of cola blended with excessive cherry juice… or even (gasp!) grenadine. Needless to say, I was not impressed.
One final variation, which under the right circumstances may be permissible, is the substitution of brandy in place of rye whiskey. Indeed, I see no reason why this may be not be allowed, so long as the recipe including brandy doesn’t muddle too much citrus, sugar, or other of the “undesirables” like several of the aforementioned versions. Also, the practice appears to be a regional phenomenon, especially popular in the state of Wisconsin, so it likely won’t be something you’d encounter just anywhere.
Finally, if you’d really like an excellent tutorial on making a proper Old Fashioned, follow the link below to view an exceptionally good video of Robert Hess making his perfect Old Fashioned, which only differs from our “preferred” recipe in that he uses an orange peel in place of a lemon peel. However, he does so in the same manner Embury intended a lemon peel to be used in his 1948 recipe (merely to present the aromatic oils and a mild citrus flavoring), hence I would agree that the beverage Hess makes here is, what can I say… perfect!
The Old Fashioned, just as the name implies, is a drink hailing from a bygone era when the excesses of today, as well as the dumbing-down of good, hard liquor weren’t something people felt they needed. I sometimes wish I could say the same of this cosmopolitan world of “fruity-tinis” in which we now live, but have no fear, friends. We, the “alcohol elite”, will still manage to know a good cocktail when we see one even in the face of such adversities, and to that I’ll raise my glass! Call me old-fashioned if you like… but I’ll just stick with calling it classy!