Some people connect the old fashioned cocktail with the first recorded definition of the cocktail in general–“a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”–which dates to 1806. Others say it happened later around 1880 at the Pendennis Club of Louisville, Kentucky. There, they say it travelled to New York at the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
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Before old-fashioned became popularly synonymous with a particular drink made with American whiskey, it described a general style. While some people drank whiskey cocktails with absinthe (the Sazerac), others drank them the Old Fashioned way. As other cocktails emerged, the Old Fashioned became a drink of its own.
The original recipe is a lump of sugar dissolved with a little water and two dashes of bitters, whiskey, some ice and a lemon peel garnish. It is traditionally served in a short, tumbler-like glass, which is now called an old fashioned glass, named after the drink.
In 1936, an older gentleman wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times complaining about the way drinks were currently mixed. In his letter he said, “Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moistened a lump of sugar with Angostura bitters, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large nor too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink. In most places the price was 15 cents or two for a quarter.”
At the time, an old fashioned cost around 40 cents. He found this price to be profanation and extortion. The letter tells a nice story. Unlike many other cocktails, the Old Fashioned has not really been muddled with. It is a classic drink and will probably always remain so.
Although common now, adding a slice of orange and a cherry to the drink is simply distracting a perfect beverage. Using simple syrup instead of a sugar cube takes away the showmanship of the Old Fashioned, but allows it to be made more quickly and the syrup dissolves quite easily.
Because the old fashioned is so simple, there are many variations of it. The best way to figure out how to make your old fashioned is to find your favorite bitters and match it with your favorite rye or bourbon. The sugar can take any form–even maple syrup or a fruit syrup, however, a purist might find that quite offensive.
Old fashioned cocktail:
2 oz of your favorite rye or bourbon
1/4 oz simple syrup
2 dashes of your favorite bitters
Garnish: thick piece of lemon or orange zest
Combine the rye or bourbon, simple syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled double old fashioned glass filled with a large ice cube. Garnish with the zest.