I spend my nights driving for Lyft, mostly taking people to and from bars. On a recent Thursday morning, I picked up a group of three coeds around 2:00 am, and as I drove them back to campus from a night of $1 well drinks, I learned that one of them was a bartender.
As we made small talk, I looked in the rear-view mirror and asked the bartender if she minded telling me how she made an Old-Fashioned. She obliged me with a recipe that included simple syrup, soda water, muddled fruit and bourbon.
“That’s not an Old-Fashioned,” her friend who sat in the front, next to me, blurted out. “You don’t use soda, and where are the bitters?”
“It’s a sports bar,” the bartender said. “Our customers aren’t as picky as you.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” the friend in front said.
“They don’t care,” the bartender said.
“I didn’t know you can’t make an Old-Fashioned,” the friend in front said. “This changes everything.” He looked at me and shook his head the way Peyton Manning does when a receiver drops a pass.
“It’s a sports bar,” the bartender said again.
“I’m into cocktails,” the friend in front told me. “I’ve got a book that’s only about the Old-Fashioned and its history. I’m kind of a snob.”
We pulled into the drive-through at Taco Bell and the Old-Fashioned controversy was quickly forgotten as my passengers pooled their singles and pocket change for a few burritos.
The argument flared up out of nowhere and flashed brightly for a few minutes, like a barroom brawl, something that is typical among those who make and/or fetishize cocktails in general and the Old-Fashioned especially.
Put another way, the Old-Fashioned is one of those polarizing, line-in-the-sand topics that people use as a litmus test of one’s character – like your political party affiliation, your religion or whether you love the Yankees.
So. Why all the fuss?
The Mount Rushmore of Cocktails
The Old-Fashioned is America’s proto-cocktail, dating back to the time between the Revolution and the War of 1812. The earliest documented use of the term “cocktail” comes from the May 6, 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository, a newspaper from Hudson, New York, in which a reader asked the editors to define the term. A week later, the paper defined “cocktail” as a “potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water and sugar,” still the standard definition, especially for modern mixologists, who curate and promote the original or traditional recipes of venerable cocktails.
Being the original cocktail, the Old-Fashioned didn’t need a fancy name to distinguish it from competitors in its early days. Known simply as a Whiskey Cocktail, the name stuck…for a time.
Throughout the 1800’s, the Whiskey Cocktail was modified according to local tastes, substituting other spirits for whiskey, as well as more exotic garnishes and ingredients. By the 1860’s, a nostalgic backlash against the rising number of cocktail variants gave birth to a new name for the granddaddy of cocktails – the Old-Fashioned – which refers to an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail made according to the traditional recipe.
Like an amateur artist adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa, bartenders everywhere used the traditional Old-Fashioned recipe as a platform on which to demonstrate their genius, and cocktail manuals printed through the twentieth-century give testimony to the assault that was made on the drink. Along the way, the lemon peel gave way to the orange wedge, which was coupled with a maraschino cherry – as garnishes and as a muddled slush of pulp to give the cocktail the consistency of soup. Another variant that has become standard in some quarters included dousing the drink with soda water.
And so it went. As the Y2K scare came and went, the Old-Fashioned became just that, an old-fashioned cocktail ordered by no one but out-of-touch seniors with blue hair and beige, Velcroed shoes.
Mad Men, Mixology and Craft Cocktails
If anyone was paying attention, it would have appeared that the Old-Fashioned was about to go the way of the 8-track tape deck, but two events occurred almost simultaneously that reversed the fortunes of the cocktail – Mad Men and the rise of craft cocktail bars.
In 2007, Mad Men premiered on AMC, telling the story of a 1960’s era New York advertising agency. In the pilot episode, Don Draper, the story’s main character orders what will become his signature cocktail – an Old-Fashioned. The series sparked many fads, like a surge in mid-century home furnishings. It also coincided with the rise of mixology as a deepening of the concept of bartender and craft cocktail bars, where patrons enjoyed the kinds of classic cocktails featured in old, black-and-white movies.
As mixologists and aficionados alike delved into the history of the Old-Fashioned, a debate arose over the proper construction of the drink. This led to scholarly research in which sources like the aforementioned 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository were discovered. Even though early recipes indicate the starting point for the Old-Fashioned, people cling to their favorite versions of the cocktail. Even Mad Men’s Don Draper added to the controversy when he was shown making an Old-Fashioned in season three.
Purists, like David Wondrich, who writes for “Esquire” magazine, advocate a recipe like this one which sticks to the original:
- ½ tsp. of loose sugar in the bottom of a single Old-Fashioned glass
- 2-3 healthy dashes of Angostura bitters
- 1 tsp. of water
- muddle these ingredients until the sugar is dissolved, as it won’t hardly dissolve in alcohol
- add 3 ice cubes to the glass
- add 2 oz. or rye whiskey or bourbon
- stir again
- add a twist of lemon or orange peel, then use as a garnish
- add a stirring implement
- let sit for one minute before serving
The next time you’re at a bar and feeling bored, ask the bartender how he or she makes an Old-Fashioned. No matter what they say, you’ll have the makings of a great bar-bet. Just be careful that you don’t get into a barroom brawl. The Old-Fashioned will do that to people.