All of us have a favourite cocktail. Or, as it is in my case, several favourite cocktails. But one cocktail that has continued to stand the test of time, both in my personal repertoire and in bars, cocktail lounges, and taprooms around the world, is the classic Old Fashioned.
The Old Fashioned comes by its name honestly. It’s old. Though its origins are contested, in general, it is believed to have not emerged as one specific cocktail, but rather a popular style of drink around the 1860s. So definitely old. A journalist eventually deemed this style of drink as an “old fashioned cocktail” after the drinkers who refused to be swayed from the formula of brown spirit, sugar, water, and bitters.
In 1880, a bartender (and bourbon connoisseur) named James E. Pepper claimed to have invented what we know as the Old Fashioned in Louisville, at the Pendennis Club. From there, James brought the recipe to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City. And that, as they say, is history. The Old Fashioned can now be served in pretty much any bar in the world. But how do you make a proper Old Fashioned?
Maybe because it holds the honor of being one of the world’s oldest cocktails, the Old Fashioned also holds the dubious honor of being one of the most contested. Bartenders, cocktail enthusiasts, and starch traditionalists have, for generations, debated the proper components, garnishes, recipes, and presentation of what is essentially a three ingredients cocktail.
In my opinion, a classic Old Fashioned should have the following, and only the following: 2 oz of Bourbon, 1 raw sugar cube, and 2–3 dashes of bitters. Then, muddle the sugar, bitters, and a splash of water together. Next comes the Bourbon, then add ice and stir. Once you’ve strained the cocktail in a glass with ice, add a touch of orange zest and garnish with an orange twist. Please note (and I cannot stress this enough) at no point should there be a maraschino cherry! It is the one garnish that can actually date what is considered to be a timeless cocktail. (For those who love the maraschino cherry: sorry, not sorry; but let me know WHY in the comments!)
But however you choose to drink your Old Fashioned, it has remained a bar menu staple. Personally, I am not a big fan of sugary drinks. I simply prefer that my base alcohol is the prominent flavour, not hidden from the palate. The Old Fashioned, with its simple recipe, is perfect for that. Not too sweet, but not too bitter and very smooth, this old-timer drink is balanced impeccably. It’s also a drink that can be sipped on year-round. During a cold winter night, it’s guaranteed to warm you up. On a cool summer evening, you can play with more fruit-based bitters, creating a more refreshing drink.
Essentially, the main reason why the Old Fashioned will remain a staple for generations to come is because of its ability to be unique to everyone’s specific palate. Want your drink, sweeter? Swap out the raw sugar for Maple Syrup. Want it more fruit-based? Try a mixture of orange or peach bitters. Want more spice? Go for more herbal bitters like Angostura or Cardamon. And of course, want it to smell just as good as it tastes? Try smoking it on any of the aromatic woods: Cherry, Hickory, Maple, Oak, or Walnut. (Shameless Product Plug)
So go on, give an Old Fashioned a try. Trust me, with a little experimentation, you won’t be disappointed.