Good drinks tell a story, and this is the story of those drinks. Each week, we'll be serving up a remedial cocktail lesson for bartending beginners to help you get the most out of your glass, with recipes, interviews, and histories coming right up.
"What is a cocktail?" That reader-posed question was answered for the first time in an 1806 edition of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a publication of Hudson, New York. The paper's editor responded with a bit of political commentary explaining that the "Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said, also to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because a person, having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else."
Since then, constituents have been voting with their palates, electing the cocktail to the commonplace. But the story of the cocktail is equal parts the story of the Old Fashioned, whose ingredients — spirits, sugar, water, and bitters — are the cocktail's definitional ingredients.
The Old Fashioned, literally the old-fashioned way of mixing a cocktail, was a return to the mixed drink's origins after experiments with the addition of orange curaçao, absinthe, and other liqueurs. In 1882, The Chicago Daily Tribune declared the Old Fashioned officially back in vogue, also saying that rye whiskey had become a more popular choice for the drink than bourbon.
The earliest published recipes for Old Fashioned cocktails are included in an 1895 book from George Kappeler, with options for whiskey, brandy, Holland gin, and Old Tom gin. Here's the whiskey version, with the note that a jigger is 2 US fluid ounces.
"Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass."
The drink, remarked the New York Times in 2012, had "fallen into relative obscurity" by the turn of the 21st Century. That was changed, they argue, by one Old Fashioned enthusiast with the ability to advertise his tastes to the nation. I'm speaking of Don Draper, as portrayed by Jon Hamm on the hit AMC series Mad Men. The ad executive is frequently seen nursing an Old Fashioned in Mad Men episodes, but only mixes one himself — rather clumsily — in Season 3 of the program, selecting rye, diluting the drink with club soda, and muddling a cherry.
Others assert that the drink's appeal has endured all the while. "An Old Fashioned is balance in a glass," says Jason Rager, fixing me one after I slip into San Francisco's open-secret speakeasy Wilson & Wilson. That bar is itself tucked inside Bourbon & Branch in the Tenderloin, another speakeasy that goes unmarked save a sign at the corner of Jones and O'Farrell that reads"Anti-Saloon League." For its part, Wilson & Wilson masquerades as a detective agency, and it does take a bit of research (and a password) to get in.
The Old Fashioned, Rager tells me, is an important baseline for many other drinks. "Every stirred and brown drink can be, in its way, traced to that." And there are advantages to simplicity, Rager adds. "It's a balanced drink, it's a delicious drink, and it's easy to make." Well that isn't going out of style anytime soon.
Bourbon & Branch offers one new-fangled take on the Old Fashioned that Rager shares with us, a drink he and colleague Alex Quesada call an Old Fashioned "on steroids."
Bourbon & Branch's Heavy Artillery
1.5 oz. James E Pepper Rye
.5 oz Smith and Cross
.5 oz Green Chartreuse
.5 o. Carpano Antia
.25 oz. Brown Sugar Cinnamon Syrup
1 dash Old Fashioned Bitters
Stir over ice before placing in an Old Fashioned glass with a big ice cube, add a twist of orange.
Learning To Drink Vol. 1: Shaken Or Stirred?
Learning To Drink Vol. 2: Punch Drunk
Learning To Drink Vol. 3: Bubbly
Learning To Drink Vol. 4: Bitters
Learning To Drink Vol. 5: Sours And Daisies
Learning To Drink Vol. 6: French Brandies
Learning To Drink Vol. 7: Who Is Tom Collins?
Learning To Drink Vol. 8: The Martin(i/ez)
Learning To Drink Vol. 9: Mezcal Y Tequila