For the last two weeks we’ve been hinting at bits and pieces of the Old-Fashioned cocktail’s storied history, but today we’re finally ready to dive in. From its humble, nineteenth-century origins as the Whiskey Cocktail to its role in propelling the modern mixology renaissance, we’re excited to present the story of the drink that started it all.
The Early Days
Insofar as the experts can bring themselves to agree upon anything, it’s generally accepted that the earliest written record of a cocktail recipe was printed in the Hudson, New York newspaper Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806. It defined the drink as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” It could be made with whiskey, gin, or anything else you had on hand, as long as it contained the other three ingredients.
We can’t say for sure how long “cocktail” had been used this way in common parlance before it was published (the word was printed three years earlier in New Hampshire paper The Farmer’s Cabinet, sans-recipe), but it’s probably safe to say that the idea of mixing various spirits and juices together wasn’t conceived out of thin air at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The Whiskey Cocktail, the venerable ancestor of the Old-Fashioned, was not always a popular drink. For the first half of the 1800s, it was significantly outpaced by more exotic rum, genever, and brandy cocktails. But over time, many came to appreciate its simplicity and found it a humble, patriotic counterpoint to the gaudy, continental tipples of the day.
Contrary to its place in the modern cocktail pantheon, it was primarily consumed first thing in the morning as a remedy for headaches and nausea (we’re not sure if the phrase “hair of the dog” was in circulation yet, but this was almost certainly the implication). But regardless, the Whiskey Cocktail was an American drink for American drinkers, and was even doled out as provisions to Union soldiers during the Civil War.
But before it could become the Old-Fashioned, it first needed to undergo a transformation into something decidedly new-fashioned.
A New Name
Despite its short list of ingredients, many would argue that the Old-Fashioned (or Whiskey Cocktail) is anything but simple – in fact, its lack of frilly adornments is exactly what elevates it to such regal complexity. But bartenders are a restless and experimental bunch, and when they get bored with the ancient prescriptions they have a tendency to start playing around with novel ways of sprucing them up.
The state of the Whiskey Cocktail in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, though, must have been a waking nightmare for cocktail purists. Every establishment had its own “improved” variation on the drink, often containing far-flung ingredients like absinthe and curaçao. Orange slices, cherries, and pineapples adorned the glass, leaving older generations of drinkers agape in horror.
A couple of decades before the turn of the twentieth century, concerned citizens decided that they’d had enough. Rumblings were made in newspaper columns and bars all around the country about a return to “old-fashioned cocktails,” with specific reference to the recipe containing nothing more than sugar, bitters, whiskey, ice, and a twist of lemon.
There were, however, a few differences in this reactionary recipe. Where classically-defined cocktails were typically made with either simple or gum syrup, the modern Old-Fashioned called for crystalline sugar to be muddled with the bitters and a few drops of water. And instead of being shaken with ice and then strained, it was ideally served with a single, large ice cube or sphere in the glass. This recipe remains the generally-accepted standard for an Old-Fashioned to this day.
From the late 1800s until Prohibition came into effect in 1920, the Old-Fashioned struggled to find its place in American drinking culture. While it originated as a reaction to overly frilly concoctions, the Gilded Age saw it quickly fall prey to the same extravagant adulteration that had led its predecessor astray. But many other establishments maintained a purist’s reverence for the cocktail, insisting that it be served with nothing more than its five standard ingredients.
Of course, any debate about the nature of the drink went out the window during the 1920s and early 30s. Prohibition led to a drought of bartenders with any modicum of skill, and American whiskey distilleries were forced to shut their doors for over a decade.
You could still order an Old-Fashioned if you ventured into a speakeasy, but it probably would have borne little resemblance to the artfully-crafted cocktail of years past.
By the time the 21st Amendment was ratified and Prohibition was officially repealed in 1933, much of the history and lore surrounding the Old-Fashioned – as well as many other cocktails – had been forgotten. It spent decades filled with muddled fruit, a likely holdover from attempts to mask the taste of low-quality contraband spirits.
Many even made it with Canadian whisky, which had become popular as it was relatively easy to smuggle across the border (this is probably the explanation for Don Draper’s obsession with Canadian Club in Mad Men).
None of this, however, did anything to stifle the Old-Fashioned’s popularity. As one of the few cocktails to survive Prohibition at all, it quickly reclaimed its place as a national favorite. This inevitably riled up traditionalists for whom the fruity mixture of the day was an abomination, but up until the 1950s this manifested mainly as spirited debate about the character of a mutually-beloved drink.
Following some wildly successful ad campaigns, though, vodka began to outpace whiskey and the Old-Fashioned gradually fell out of favor. Pretty much all the way up through the 1980s, it was relegated to the purview of intransigent old-timers.
But in the 1990s, nearly 200 years after the word was coined, the cocktail was getting ready for a renaissance.
Around the turn of the twenty-first century, cocktail enthusiasts were buzzing about a number of individuals who were making a splash in the industry.
Dale DeGroff, founder of The Museum of the American Cocktail and known to many as “King Cocktail” himself, is often credited with single-handedly catalyzing the global craft cocktail movement. His stint at New York City’s Rainbow Room in the late 80s featured a menu of classics inspired by Jerry Thomas’ seminal Bar-Tender’s Guide, including the Old-Fashioned.
Once again, the drink’s popularity skyrocketed, along with a host of other historic tipples that have since become mainstays.
Though it has undergone numerous alterations and been the subject of much debate over the course of the last few decades, the Old-Fashioned seems to have settled back into its rightful place as an American institution.
The contemporary standard is that of the late 1800s – muddled sugar, bitters, bourbon or rye whiskey, a large chunk of ice, and a twist of citrus. But as we discussed in our previous article, this classically-minded minimalism hasn’t stopped the new generation of mixologists from experimenting endlessly.
Perhaps the one thing we can take away from the story of the Old-Fashioned is that cocktails, like language, art, and fashion, are a dynamic and constantly-evolving part of our culture. There’s no “right” way to go about making a drink, but we should never too hastily disregard the work of the men and women who came before us. As the modern cocktail renaissance has demonstrated, sometimes doing things the old-fashioned way turns out wonderfully.
This is part three of a four-part series on the Old-Fashioned. Don’t miss out on parts one and two, and four, and keep an eye out for more features from Bevvy Presents! This article was heavily influenced by a number of sources, but mostly owes thanks to Robert Simonson’s incredible book The Old-Fashioned.