The Old Fashioned – A Classic Cocktail

A classic cocktail, the Old Fashioned will always be a delicious bourbon drink that never goes out of style.

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

Thanks in part to Don Draper and Mad Men, the Old Fashioned cocktail saw a resurgence in popularity in the last decade. I know both of my parents loved them and I recall I loved stealing that bourbon soaked cherry whenever I could. It’s a simple drink with emphasis on the spirit and I think perfect for winter.

While the vast majority of people head into the New Year with a profession to cut out; I’m more pragmatic. I’ll cut back but not cut out and a cocktail like this, with the bourbon forward and not a lot of fancy additions, serves up great taste without a lot of frou frou on the rim or in garnishes.

I was a bit surprised myself when I discovered that I have shared on this blog a couple of versions of an Old-Fashioned but never the original drink; what? Time to fix that. I served these to friends on Christmas Day and it was time to right that wrong; I think they are a fantastic winter drink.

The heyday of the Old Fashioned was in the late 1800s and early 1900s when it acquired the handle by which we now know it. For decades it had been simply known as a whiskey cocktail.

When bartenders of the post-Civil War days started getting too fancy with their garnishes, cocktail purists began calling for a return to sanity. Cocktail purists are a cranky bunch aren’t they; I always wonder exactly who they are? They are so rigid and righteous sometimes that doggone it; they make me want a drink!

Larimer Square

Originally or at least in 1806, a “cock tail” was a morning drink made up of a little water, a little sugar, a lot of liquor, and a couple splashes of bitters (I can actually imagine that on Larimer Square pictured above in downtown Denver).

Freeze some water, mix it with whiskey, and you have an Old-Fashioned. And a fine drink it is too; as much as I love fruity, swirly, pretty drinks I also love something that lets the bourbon shine and this is it. No place for cheap bourbon either; it is front and center and it had better be good enough to drink on its’ own if you’re pouring an Old Fashioned.

An 1886 edition of the publication Comment and Dramatic Times contains the earliest known print description of the newly christened “Old Fashioned.”

“The modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it,” said the editor, Leander Richardson. “A bartender in one of the most widely known New York establishments for the dispensation of drinks was telling me the other day that there had set in an unmistakable stampede in favor of old-fashioned cocktails.”

Mr. Richardson then defined what the standard-bearers were after: a drink “nearly everywhere recognized as being made with a little sugar, a little bitters, a lump of ice, a piece of twisted lemon peel and a good deal of whiskey.”

Still, by the year 2000, they had fallen into relative obscurity. As a sign of how much that has changed, today it’s a rare craft cocktail bar whose menu doesn’t feature either the Old Fashioned or a modern twist on the drink’s elegant formula of whiskey, water, sugar and bitters.

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

The drink’s prominence was underlined when the freelance booze evangelist Martin Doudoroff unveiled Old Fashioned 101, a how-to Web site that lays down the law on the drink’s proper architecture. I’m good with this information til the end. I like the garnishes; maybe it’s a throwback to those cocktails of my parents but a boozy piece of fruit is always a delight for me and so I do it. 

Those now customary fruit garnishes; oranges, cherries, lemon slices, etc, stem from the traditions that American cocktails had visited upon them under Prohibition. The liquor was cheap and fruit garnishes served (supposedly) to help cover that fact.

I do agree that this is no cocktail for muddling; the sweetness of the sugar and fruit should not cover the inherent sweet tones of the bourbon; this is a bourbon cocktail after all and it’s not meant to be sweet and gooey!

My mother loved an Old Fashioned; maybe loved a few too many of them even, so I’ve had a bit of a ‘keeping it at arms length’ mentality but when looking at the ingredients, really what is there NOT to love?

The first time I made an Old-Fashioned cocktail, I made two of them and shared one with my daughter Emily; the young woman who loved the cake vodka I could barely tolerate and favors a sweeter white wine over all others.

Still…she liked it too; when done well it’s clearly a bourbon forward cocktail but the subtlety of sugar, citrus and bitters also makes for something more divine than a simple ‘bourbon on the rocks.’

For some folks there is a debate over rye or bourbon? I see no reason for debate; use what you love. No secret I love Maker’s Mark but if you like rye; go that route. Canadian Club is another good choice (it has a lot of rye in it) but please, no cheap bourbon. Pretty please?

Maybe a throwback to those tricks learned during prohibition days but it’s often too sweet and would be overkill in this fine, old fashioned cocktail.

Natural Maraschino CherriesAlthough I chose to add an array of fruits for garnish I’ve long eschewed the traditional maraschino cherries; they are nothing but food dye and high fructose corn syrup. Since I do like using them for cocktail garnishes I’ve been forced to make my own.

I love them but getting sour cherries is next to impossible and last year when I was gifted with some from a neighbor’s tree; the take was so small that I became a cherry hoarder. ‘Mine, all mine’ was my mantra and I just know it was a quite unattractive side of my personality!

CherryMan to the rescue. As if reading my mind, they inquired if I would care to sample their product. Heck if I had known about them I would have already bought one of their mega Colossal jars of cherries!

They have what those other cherries do not; as in they actually taste like cherries. I was happy to have had some on hand when I made this cocktail; if I’m adding a garnish to my cocktails I don’t want it to be something I have to apologize for! Grown and packaged in Michigan, a state well known for their cherries; this is a true find.

Is someone in your family an Old Fashioned type? Make this cocktail for them, it might bring back memories of another day but at the very least they will love you forever!

More Old-Fashioned Cocktails

PIN IT! ‘The Old Fashioned – A Classic Cocktail’

The Old Fashioned Cocktail Garnished with Orange, Lemon, and Maraschino Cherries

The Old Fashioned Cocktail in a Low Ball Glass

The Old Fashioned Cocktail
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The Old Fashioned – A Classic Cocktail

There are classic cocktails that are deservedly so and this is one of them. Bourbon forward with a bit of citrus and some sweetening and it's thoroughly enjoyable.
Prep Time10 mins
Total Time10 mins
Course: Bourbon
Cuisine: American
Calories: 231kcal
Author: Creative Culinary

Ingredients

  • 1 Sugar cube
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Orange and lemon peel
  • 1 & 1/2 oz Bourbon or Rye whiskey

For Garnish

  • 1 Orange Slice
  • 1 Lemon Slice I like a bit of lemon but this is optional
  • Maraschino Cherry

Instructions

  • Twist the orange and lemon peels over a cocktail shaker and drop into shaker. Add 2 dashes of bitters, 3/4 oz of simple syrup and ice. Stir well to mix all ingredients and pour into a lowball glass filled with ice.
  • Add 2 oz of whiskey and stir.
  • Garnish with fruit if desired.
  • Place sugar cube in Old Fashioned glass and saturate with bitters. Muddle with orange and lemon peels until sugar is dissolved; add a splash of water if necessary.
  • Fill the glass with ice cubes and add whiskey.
  • Garnish with orange slice and a cocktail cherry.

Nutrition

Serving: 18 | Calories: 231kcal | Carbohydrates: 26g | Protein: 2g | Sodium: 3mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 18g

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13 Comments

  1. All drinks using this template were called “Cocktail” for years and years. It would’ve been “Rum Cocktail” or “Brandy Cocktail” or “Whiskey Cocktail.” As the 19th century marched along and all kinds of new drinks emerged with unique identifying names (Martinez, Manhattan, Martini), people came to ask for this original version as the “Old Fashioned” cocktail. The bar at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky helped standardize this name and recipe – specifying bourbon as the preferred spirit. As the century turned and Prohibition restricted access to “the good stuff,” people took to adding all kinds of adulterants to make the drink less awful: muddled oranges, cherries, lemons – even pineapple and mint on occasion. A drowning in seltzer was the final disgrace. And wouldn’t you know it, that formula stuck all the way through the next turn of the century, when people got their hands on copies of old 19th-century recipe books that called for the original, simple style of spirit, sugar, water (as ice) and bitters – with just a little hit of orange oil that perfectly unifies the caramel and vanilla of the bourbon with the holiday spices of the bitters.

  2. Ever since we went to a Mad Men-inspired cocktail party in February, Old Fashioneds have been my new favorite! Such a delicious classic. My brother was visiting last week and stirred up quite a few for us. We’ve been making them with rye, but I do love bourbon so will try that next. And rhubarb bitters? Oh my.

    1. I had actually wanted to do this post for the return of Mad Men…you see how well that went right Hannah? I just got some rye…time for me to try YOUR way! 🙂

    1. Thanks much Paula…this cocktail was a keeper for sure and I just love photographing the drinks (and it’s not bad having to test them either!).

  3. Excellent post. I go back and forth between rye and bourbon for this drink, so I use both spirits in it. Lately I’ve been using Buffalo Trace bourbon in it – less sweet than Maker’s Mark, and it works well. Those cherries are new to me – good tip. Exceptionally good stuff – thanks.

    1. I go back and forth too but typically have Maker’s on hand all the time. I’ve got an unopened bottle of Buffalo Trace; I need to move it up on my list of bottlse to open it seems? 🙂

  4. This post really put a smile on my face. I must have served a million of these during my bartending/waitressing period and I’ve never tried one myself. You have inspired me to give one a try. Your photo is making me thirsty.

  5. What an interesting post! Ive always liked the title Old Fashioned for a cocktail but never knew anything about it or what it was! I adore maraschino cherries, wonder if that brand is exported over here?

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