History of the Old Fashioned

History of the Old Fashioned

Ever sit down to relax and enjoy your favorite drink and wonder what led to these particular ingredients coming together in a glass? Let’s look at the history and origins of one of America’s favorite cocktails, the “Old Fashioned.”

The original cocktail

Let’s start by introducing the idea of a cocktail. You’ve probably heard of a cocktail dress, a cocktail party, cocktail napkins — and for football games, cocktail weenies. These are all related. The idea of a cocktail as a drink is a simple mix of a spirit, sugar, water, and some bitters that blend well together.

Though the year that the Old Fashion was invented is up for debate, we can start to see the origins of the Old Fashioned in the late 18th century. America’s first President, George Washington, was widely known for his love of what is basically a Whiskey Cocktail, which is bitters mixed with whiskey. Over the next century, different ingredients made their way into the cocktail such as maraschino cherries, absinthe, and other liquors.  Today’s drink menu at many higher end bars contains more than a few drinks that people in the 18th century wouldn’t recognize.

That is where the Old Fashioned comes in. Depending on who you ask, a drink similar to the Old Fashioned was described in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks as far back as 1862. In this guide, the author mentions a drink made from mixing Angostura bitters, sugar, water, a lump of ice, and gin. While it didn’t call for bourbon or whiskey — both of which are Old Fashioned mainstays — the transition would soon be made in 1880 at a club called the Pendennis. The Pendennis Club’s bartender, James Pepper, mixed bourbon into the equation and then brought the drink with him to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

By 1895, the Old Fashioned was becoming more popular and, like its unnamed predecessor from 1862, it would soon be in a bartender's book called Modern American Drinks. This time around, the glass it was to be served in was described as a whiskey glass in which the bartender should place a lump of ice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a shot of whiskey, and a lemon peel. The author called it the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, a reference to both the changes made in other cocktails, and potentially just calling it something old.

What is in an Old Fashioned?

The ingredients of the Old Fashioned evolved over time before becoming standardized into the drink we know and love today. While the actual contents of this cocktail can vary according to the preferences of the drinker and drink maker, the Old Fashioned is commonly made with whiskey or bourbon, Angostura or other bitters, sugar, ice, and an orange peel.

In case you are wondering how these specific ingredients formed the basis for a cocktail, consider what was widely available in the late 19th century. Bitters such as Angostura were easily preserved and spirits like whiskey and bourbon had been a part of American drinking history since its beginnings. The Old Fashioned is even the official cocktail of Louisville, Kentucky, which makes sense given that the state is known for its whiskey and bourbon production!

Bourbon vs whiskey in your Old Fashioned

While many people may use the words whiskey and bourbon interchangeably, they are not actually interchangeable! Bourbon is an American-made whiskey that by definition is at least 51% corn. It is perhaps best known for being aged in oak barrels. Whiskey, on the other hand, allows for different processes and can be made just about anywhere in the world. It can be made of a mash of barley, corn, wheat, or rye.

While bourbon can offer a variety of flavors, there are often notes of cocoa, oak, pepper, caramel, and vanilla. Compared to whiskey, bourbon tends to be more smooth. Whiskey can often be described as tasting nuttier and fruitier and it also tends to be more grainy, which makes it less smooth.

Old Fashioned Recipe

  • 1 tsp sugar or simple syrup
  • 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 oz Whistling Andy Straight Bourbon Whiskey
  • Orange twist and Luxardo cherry for garnish

In a rocks glass, mix sugar or simple syrup, bitters, and bourbon. Add ice and stir until sugar is dissolved. Run the orange peel over the rim of the glass and then drop it into the drink. If you’re feeling fancy, add some Luxardo cherries as garnish.

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