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Food & Drink | The Old Fashioned - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

Food & Drink | The Old Fashioned - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

By the 1860’s it was common in the US for a spirit to be mixed with bitters and sugar to form a simple primeval cocktail. When whiskey was used as the spirit and a few drops of other tinctures like orange bitters were added they had a concoction referred to as "old-fashioned", with no capital letters or definite article. According to a Chicago barman quoted in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1882, Rye whiskey was more popular than Bourbon in this mixture, but nevertheless the combination of spirit, bitters and sugar he describes was very similar to what had been mixed in the 1860’s and before.

The classic recipe:

Method: Put the sugar into an Old-Fashioned glass, i.e. a whisk(e)y tumbler, and douse with the Bitters. Muddle (*see below) the sugar and bitters. Add the ice and then the whiskey and stir. Serve garnished with a twist of orange peel.

*Muddle is a mixology term, meaning to blend by gently squashing ingredients - e.g. sugar, pieces of fruit or leaves like mint - against the bottom of the glass to release flavours, using a tool called a muddler which has a blunt bottom end.

I'm practicing what I preach regarding using top quality ingredient liquors: going with “Eagle Rare” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. It is smooth and classy and a bit smokey ...and 20€ a bottle more than Jim Beam but you can't make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. With so few ingredients in this cocktail you've got to go with quality.

“Eagle Rare” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Angostura & Orange Bitters

The first use of the name "The Old Fashioned" for a Bourbon whiskey cocktail is thought to have been at the Pendennis Club, a gentlemen's club founded in 1881 in Louisville, Kentucky - in the heartland of American whiskey. The recipe was said to have been invented by a bartender at that club but, as it was already a common enough mix further north in Chicago by that time, perhaps he was simply the first to introduce it to Louisville. At any rate, he claimed to have created it in honour of Colonel James E. Pepper, a prominent businessman and bourbon distiller in Kentucky, and he in turn introduced the cocktail to the bar of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City where it gained wider metropolitan popularity thanks to his socialising there with other captains of industry, like John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, C.V. Vanderbilt, Charles Pillsbury, Fred Pabst, Charles Tiffany and William Steinway - and this did no harm whatsoever to sales of his own 'Old Pepper' whiskey, modestly advertised as "The Oldest and Best Brand of Whisky made in Kentucky".

Col. James E. Pepper. He looks like a man that would advertise his whiskey as “the oldest and best”.

The Colonel’s distillery

The Colonel’s distillery

With its conception rooted in the history of Louisville, Kentucky, in 2015 the city named the Old Fashioned its official cocktail. Each year, during the first two weeks of June, Louisville celebrates "Old Fashioned Fortnight" involving bourbon events, cocktail specials and culminating with National Bourbon Day on 14th June.

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In 1948 a New York tax lawyer and cocktail aficionado named David Embury published his definitive manual The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. In this book he rates the Old Fashioned at the top of his list of the six principal classic cocktails, because of its “simplicity and elegance”. Okay, yes, I agree it’s certainly simple: it's bulk is just about all and only whiskey - with the addition of just a few drops of bitters. So, without wishing to rain on its Louisville parade, and while it's certainly a tasty drink, I'm not convinced it really qualifies as a cocktail at all. I think it's a bit like most people replying Sean Connery when asked to name their favourite James Bond: the original and the coolest. It's more like just a straight whiskey with a dash of flavouring to give it a twist - or originally probably to take the sharp edge of a rough old whiskey!

We saw a couple of weeks ago how Martinis featured prominently in the cult 1970’s movie and television series M*A*S*H, a comedy set in an American mobile army hospital during the Korean War. Well, while Hawkeye and Trapper are drinking their martinis, the character Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan - often the butt of Hawkeye’s and Trapper’s pranks - frequently orders herself an Old Fashioned, "without the fruit", while in the officers’ mess.

“Hot Lips” Houlihan downing an Old Fashioned

“Hot Lips” Houlihan downing an Old Fashioned

For the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Old Fashioned was perennially the most fashionable drink being drinked. By the 1990s, however, it had all but disappeared as the masses fell under the siren spell of frothy, fruity atrocities like the Cosmopolitan popularised in the hit HBO series SEX AND THE CITY.

But then in 2007 along came the massively popular MAD MEN series set in the advertising world of the 1960’s, in which the Old Fashioned made many appearances as the cocktail of choice of hard-drinking advertising executive Don Draper. So prominent was the Old Fashioned that it almost became a character in the show in its own right, and the series undoubtedly helped inspire a renewed interest in this and other classic cocktails in the 2000’s.

MAD MEN’s Don Draper and the Old Fashioned that was rarely out of his hand... except when he was holding a Martini.

MAD MEN’s Don Draper and the Old Fashioned that was rarely out of his hand... except when he was holding a Martini.


During the first half of the 20th Century in parts of America less steeped in the traditions of bourbon and rye whiskey, for instance in Wisconsin, brandy or Cognac was substituted for the whiskey - where, with impeccable logic, it went by the name of a Brandy Old Fashioned. Eventually the use of other spirits became common too, such as a gin recipe that became popular in the late 1940’s.

The Contemporary Old Fashioned, a longer fizzier drink :

  • 1 Orange half-wheel

  • 3 Brandied cherries

  • 1 Lemon twist

  • 1 Brown sugar cube

  • 1/2 tsp White sugar

  • 3 dashes Angostura Bitters

  • Club soda or Perrier-type sparkling water

  • 2 pts Rittenhouse 100-Proof Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye Whiskey. Rye whiskey has a slightly sharper and less mellow flavour than a Bourbon (as suggested for the classic Old Fashioned recipe above) but it's really just a matter of personal preference.

Garnish: Orange half-wheel, brandied cherry and lemon twist.

The great Rittenhouse Rye.

The great Rittenhouse Rye.


Muddle the orange, cherries, lemon twist, sugars and bitters. Remove the squashed lemon and orange peels and discard. Add a splash of sparkling water and fill with large ice cubes. Carefully pour the whiskey on top. Finish with another splash of sparkling water and garnish with an orange half-wheel, brandied cherry and lemon twist.

As testimony to this new-found popularity when Drinks International interviewed barmen/women at the top 100 bars across America in 2016 to find out the most popular cocktails ordered that year, while the Negroni, the Martini and the Manhattan were all in the top five (see, it was the Old Fashioned that topped the list. While cocktail trends come and go, the classics, it appears, are here to stay.

Next week : The very Mexican Margarita. Join us for another drink.

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The refreshing Margarita

Next week on Chrystal

More articles by David Prince:

Disclaimer: This article is not for commercial ends and no gratuities were received from any products mentioned herein. Chrystal 2019

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