The New Old Fashioned

This Repeal Day, we’ll focus on the perhaps the oldest drink of all. The drink that gave cocktail its name, and set the standard from which all others follow.

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In an early May, 1806 edition of  The Balance & Columbian Repository, out of Hudson, New York, presented in an editorial, the first written description of a “cocktail.”


“Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else. ”


In his 1862 The Bar-Tender’s Guide (alternately titled How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion) Jerry Thomas, arguably the father of modern mixology, listed several cocktail recipes, as well as improved cocktails, and other variations. Thomas was the first bartender to codify recipes and technique, in an industry that relied heavily on oral tradition, apprenticeship, and years of training. He brought the world of the bartender into the lives of the everyday man, and in doing so gave recipes for hundreds of drinks. From flips to fizzes, sours to nogs, its no surprise that, by the end of the 1800’s, cocktails themselves contained additional ingredients that changed the nature of the drink exponentially. The term “cocktail” became slang for a mixed drink of any kind, and the practice survives until present day.

At its essence, there is no discernible difference between a whiskey cocktail and an “old-fashioned.” As cocktails became more and more complicated, using new and esoteric ingredients, it became common practice for those who wished a classic whiskey cocktail be served to them at the bar, to request a whiskey cocktail “made the old-fashioned way.” And thus, the term old-fashioned was coined.

So how did a recipe meant to sweeten and season whiskey, turn into the weak, limp-wristed, fizzy, Carmen Miranda head-dress concoction that we see at so many bars today? A quick lesson in brandy may help explain.

In the late 19th century, phylloxera (small sap-sucking insects) were obliterating Europe’s grapevines and causing the price of brandy to soar (this caused changes to the drinking culture worldwide and will be discussed in further editions.) In 1893, the Korbel brothers brought the brandy they had been producing in California with little success, to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They introduced the brandy to German mid-westerners who were visiting from nearby Wisconsin, and a marriage ensued that lasts to this day. Wisconsin is currently the leading consumer of brandy in the United States, and the unofficial state drink is the Brandy Old-Fashioned. I’ll let you read more about its history here.

The decades following prohibition were dark ones for the bartending trade. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the old-fashioned went wrong, but the drink stands today as the perfect example of bastardization mixed with personalization. Barely two bartenders make the drink the same way, especially if they came up in the industry during different decades.

The recent craft cocktail resurgence proves there is hope for more spirit-forward drinks, and the classic whiskey cocktail, made in the old-fashioned way, seems to be at the forefront. I like to experiment with different bitters, different spirits, and flavored simple syrups. For example, last night I made an Aquavit old fashioned using Linie Aquavit, Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Decanter Bitters, and rich demerara simple syrup. It’s as easy as that.

When it comes to making an old-fashioned for a guest at my bar, I realize most of my customers are not regulars at PDT or Vessel, and I’ve learned to blend a love for drinks with a love for service. While I’m elated to muddle a sugar cube with some Angostura and drop in a healthy measure of rye, I like my house old-fashioneds to be a blend of the old with the new. There’s a certain amount of ego that needs to be set aside when it comes to drink evolution. Realizing that trends evolve is one of the ways to connect with customers, and there’s nothing worse than a pretentious bartender that projects scorn at any guest who their drink differently than the bartender wants to make it. However, if we are to interpret drink styles and change them to suit our needs, its crucial to understand the history of the drink, and to use proper technique. In this way, we pay homage to the backstory, to the people who blazed the trails that we walk on, unencumbered, every day.


The New Old-Fashioned

2.5oz rye or bonded whiskey (skip bourbon, it’s sweet enough to drink straight. I like Rittenhouse 100pf or Old Overholt. Check out a video of Don Draper making a version of an old fashioned using OO here)
.5oz 2:1 simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 brandied Amerena cherry
1 large zest of orange peel (use a vegetable peeler and minimize the white pith. Zest a piece about the size of your thumb)

Add simple syrup, bitters, cherry, and large orange peel to the bottom of a single rocks glass.
Muddle slowly and deliberately to extract the oils from the orange peel and mix with the other ingredients.
Add booze and stir to incorporate ingredients.
Add 5-6 cubes of ice and enjoy!


Happy Repeal Day!!

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