Old Fashioned Cocktails

The zenith of American culture arrived in the two decades following World War II. The surest illustration of this is that all three of the country’s greatest contributions to world civilization were in full flower. On Broadway, the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, and Lerner and Loewe were, song by song, contributing a fat new volume to the American songbook. The clubs in Chicago, New Orleans and New York City pulsated with the bebop sounds of jazz greats in the making Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. And, in bars across the nation, people were drinking cocktails.

Yes, cocktails. Cocktails are the American invention that America forgets to crow about. We took what the rest of the world had to offer — liquor, bitters, wine, fruit, sugar, eggs, milk, what have you — and tossed them together in various combinations. And, because this wasn’t England, because we were all proud individuals deserving of our own special serving, we didn’t deposit those mixtures in a punch bowl. We put them into separate small glasses.

The potions went by various names: flips, slings, sours, juleps, cobblers, fixes, fizzes, bucks and cocktails. In a century’s time, we would come to refer to all mixed drinks as cocktails, but back in 1806, when the term was first defined in print, a cocktail meant a specific, and rather minor, category of alcoholic beverage, one composed of spirit, water, sugar and bitters. It was a simple composition, and thus a sturdy one — one built to last. And it has lasted until today. Not only lasted, but thrived. Not only thrived, but triumphed. You can get a close copy of that 225-year-old drink today in any bar or restaurant you care to enter. It’s called an Old-Fashioned.

This is a glorious time to be an Old-Fashioned drinker, even more so than during the postwar days. Back then, the drink was common and plentiful. You could buy one anywhere, and every bartender knew how to make a decent one. But the whiskey used may not have been top shelf, the ice was substandard, and you had to contend with a garnish of orange slice and traffic-light-red maraschino cherry — “the garbage,” as purists called it.

Over the past decade, that Old-Fashioned has enjoyed a glow-up, as the kids say. The whiskey is better; sometimes it’s rye, as it was back in the late 1800s, and often it’s of a higher proof. The ice in the best craft cocktail bars is limited to a single, crystalline cube, which both beautifies the drink and preserves its flavor, saving the contents from premature dilution. And the fruit element has been cut back to an orange twist or lemon twist, or both (called “rabbit ears”), garnishes that enhance and amplify the flavors in the whiskey but don’t muddy the appearance of the cocktail. Furthermore, nobody’s spraying any soda water on top of the drink.

Yes, you’ll still get the lazy 1950s version in many bars — most bars, really. But the point is, you don’t have to settle for it anymore. Quality abounds.

And people aren’t settling. They’re demanding a better Old-Fashioned, and they’re getting it. It helps that these people are, by and large, young, as young people tend to get what they want. It could be argued that more young adults are drinking Old-Fashioneds today than at any point in history. It’s actually a trendy drink. And the Old-Fashioned, while always popular, was never that before. It was a traditional cocktail for traditional folks. That was true in the ’40s and ’50s, and it was true back in the 1870s and 1880s, when an army of cranky old sops, tired of bartenders slipping Chartreuse and absinthe and maraschino liqueur into their Whiskey Cocktails, started slapping their palms angrily on the bar and demanding an “Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail” — you know, like they used to do!

But today, the 20-something man in the slim-cut suit and pocket square and the 20-something woman in the jumpsuit are ordering Old-Fashioneds. It’s the number one order in most bars, eclipsing the Mojito, Cosmo, Margarita and other bestsellers.

It was a long time getting there. For, while the Old-Fashioned, like many other cocktails (Jack Rose, Aviation, Last Word, Jungle Bird, Ward Eight, Boulevardier — the list goes on and on), had never completely disappeared, it went through some tough times during the final years of the 20th century. Oh, its flame still burned bright in a few odd corners of the world. London hadn’t forsaken it, though their strange “stirred-down” rendition took 10 minutes to make and was purposely diluted. Wisconsin’s love affair with the drink never waned, but the Badger State made the cocktail with domestic brandy, a squirt of soda pop on top and all sorts of odd garnishes. Meanwhile, down in Buenos Aires they lined the inside of the Old-Fashioned glasses with a wallpaper glue of bitters-sugar mixture.

But in most other locales, the drink’s reputation was as a has-been. It was a strange, sad concoction that your mom or dad drank, maybe your grandparents. To young eyes, its appeal was dubious. It tasted oversweet and looked murky. And that anything-but-food cherry was a dodgy character. Even the name was a turnoff. Who wants to be Old-Fashioned when you could be Cosmopolitan?

The brash young mixologists who came of age in the ’00s were just as mystified by the cocktail, if more curious. They understood that the Old-Fashioned was a famous drink, an old drink, a cocktail with a pedigree. But, after sampling a hundred lackluster examples, they didn’t know why. Like a tourist, knowing the fame of the American hot dog, but only knowing the taste of a dirty-water dog from a Manhattan street cart, they were confused.

Slowly but surely, though, they beat their way through the modern brush of misinformation and bad bar techniques, back to the drink’s origins in the early 19th century, and its first heyday in the late years of the same century. Old cocktail books from before Prohibition helped. These instructional tomes, written by the greatest bartenders of their time, were out of print and difficult to lay your hands on. But, beginning around 2007, they began to be reissued. Through these, barkeeps could finally see what the Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail had once been. It was not a soupy fruit salad. It was not a tiny bowl of Good Housekeeping punch. It was the simplest and most forthright of drinks. It was the embodiment of the forgotten second half of its name: Whiskey Cocktail. It was all the mixologists had ever been fighting for — complexity within simplicity; proud but smartly accentuated flavors; a portrait of a spirit flattered by a perfect frame.

And so, they began serving the Old-Fashioned again as it had never been served in the United States in 100 years. People noticed almost immediately. It was a familiar name, yes, but, to their senses, almost a different drink — a drink they liked better, a drink that taught them that, hey, maybe they liked bourbon after all. Maybe they even liked rye. A good Old-Fashioned can convince you of such life-changing notions.

It can also convince you that you want another Old-Fashioned. Or maybe a different Old-Fashioned. Thus, around 2010, the age of the Old-Fashioned riff was ushered in. We’re still living in it. Your favorite saloon probably has an Old-Fashioned variation on the menu. Your regular bartender probably has one, too, up their sleeve. Some early examples included the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, which used tequila and mezcal as a base instead of whiskey. That drink was invented by Phil Ward, a prolific New York bartender who worked at Pegu Club, Death & Co., and his own bar, Mayahuel. So was the Elder Fashion, which called for gin and a touch of St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur that was all the rage in the late ’00s. With the Prime Meats Old-Fashioned, the house drink at the late-lamented Brooklyn bar of the same name, bartender Damon Boelte showed that you can utterly change the cocktail by using a different bitters; in his case, homemade pear bitters made from a pear tree that grew behind the restaurant. Don Lee of PDT, the famed speakeasy in New York’s East Village neighborhood, went a bit further with his experimentation. In 2007, he took Four Roses Bourbon and mixed it with bacon fat from the prized Benton’s bacon of Tennessee. He then put the liquid in the freezer. Once it was frozen, he scraped away the fat, leaving behind bourbon that tasted delectably of smoky bacon. With this he created the Benton’s Old-Fashioned. The drink remains the most popular menu item at PDT today.

New Orleans bartenders got in on the game as well. At Arnaud’s French 75 bar, Chris Hannah created the Rebennack (named after famed local musician Dr. John). It contained rye, Amaro Averna, Clément Creole Shrubb, Peychaud’s Bitters and an orange twist. At the now defunct cobbler palace Bellocq, they came up with the Old-Fashioned Cobbler, basically an Old-Fashioned served over cobbled ice and crowned with orange, cherry, vanilla extract and powdered sugar.

When I wrote my 2014 book, The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, I had no problem filling up the recipe section. Old-Fashioned with an absinthe base; one with a Grand Marnier base; ones that leaned in a tiki direction; a specimen that came out bright purple. They all found space in the book.

Such spins are not desecrations of the Old-Fashioned name. The drink has been through this before. In fact, substitution and improvisation are built into the cocktail’s DNA. For the Old-Fashioned was never just one cocktail; it was many cocktails, a whole genre. Look in the old bartending manuals of the 1890s and 1900s and you’ll find recipes for Old-Fashioned Gin Cocktails, Old-Fashioned Rum Cocktails, Old-Fashioned Brandy Cocktails, Old-Fashioned Applejack Cocktails and so forth. Though we know the Old-Fashioned primarily as a whiskey cocktail, historically it was more of a blueprint, a format rather than a specific, hard-and-fast recipe.

The important thing is that that blueprint has now been recovered. With it in hand, we have the tools to build whole cities of Old-Fashioneds well into the future.