The craft cocktail boom of the last decade has brought back into fashion any number of classics, from the Aviation to the Manhattan. But no single drink has fully reentered the popular imagination quite like the Old Fashioned. Whether you’re at an elaborate cocktail bar or the most humble tavern, there’s likely to be someone sipping on the classic.
And while the Old Fashioned is a crowd-pleasing favorite, modern-day mixologists adore the drink as well. “It’s the perfect example of the saying ‘Less is more,’” says Aubrey Slater, bartender at Honeybee’s in New York. All of the traditional ingredients — whiskey, sugar, a healthy serving of bitters — are as Slater describes, “working together in total harmony.”
Many mixologists consider the Old Fashioned a good measure of a bartender’s chops; how you make the cocktail says a great deal about your approach to bartending, your attention to detail, and comfort with the classics.
There’s beauty in simplicity. And in the midst of an American whiskey boom, perhaps it’s no surprise that one of our era’s favorite cocktails is one that shows off whiskey so well.
The Old Fashioned, of course, has a great deal of history. (It didn’t get that name otherwise.) But the cocktail dates back far enough that it was considered an “old-fashioned” drink even in its pre-Prohibition heyday.
“The Old-Fashioned was an evolution of the Whiskey Cocktail, which was simply whiskey, sugar, bitters, and water, and was served as early as 1800 or so,” explains cocktail authority Robert Simonson, author of The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore. “When bartenders in the 1870s and 1880s began adding embellishments to their Whiskey Cocktails, some customers rebelled against the innovations,” preferring the traditional version and thus ordering “old-fashioned whiskey cocktails” instead. “That name was eventually shortened to Old-Fashioned.”
The four components of a true Old Fashioned have remained the same: A base spirit, usually whiskey; water, in the form of ice melt; sugar, whether granulated or as simple syrup; and bitters. (Today, many bartenders would consider a citrus twist mandatory, as well.)
During Prohibition, that simple formula evolved into a fruity concoction of muddled orange and cherry that reigned for decades to come. “Some theorize the fruit was used to mask the bad taste of the whiskey used during that time,” says Simonson. “Others think the Old-Fashioned became confused with other drinks that called for fruit.” By the time the Don Drapers of the world were downing Old Fashioneds throughout the mid-20th century, the fruited Old Fashioned had firmly taken hold.
It is only in recent years that mixologists reclaimed the proper Old Fashioned in all its simplicity. “Young mixologists knew it was a famous drink, but couldn’t figure out how it got that reputation, since most of the versions being served then were pretty awful,” says Simonson.
“It wasn’t until they discovered the old, out-of-print cocktail books from the late 1800s, and the recipes for the Old-Fashioned therein, that they understood that the drink had once been something other than the watery muddled fruit salad it had become.”
There’s no need for muddled artificially colored fruit in a cocktail that’s all about the whiskey. In an age where we’re spoiled for choice in artisanal distilling, the Old Fashioned is a drink that really lets the spirit take center stage. “The simplicity of the drink and how much the spirit shines are two reasons the Old Fashioned has been able to sustain its popularity,” says Tommy Flynn, beverage director of Paper Daisy in New York.
Indeed, whiskey and the Old Fashioned, a cocktail that exhibits its virtues so beautifully, enjoy their popularity in tandem, each reinforcing the other. “Whiskey has been the drink du jour for a long time, and the Old Fashioned helped propel it to that status,” says Flynn.
Another virtue of simplicity — virtually every bartender can make an Old Fashioned, no matter how meager the bar. “It’s a simple drink made with at-hand ingredients,” says Sother Teague, beverage director of Honeybee’s and Amor y Amargo Brooklyn. You don’t need to prepare for an Old Fashioned; you can simply create one. “It also happens to be delicious.”
The fundamental formula of an Old Fashioned — a whiskey drink first and foremost, with just a little sweetener and a dash of bitters — is respected the world over. But in some ways, the Old Fashioned has become more of a template than a cocktail. Within that format, there’s endless room for experimentation.
“It is probably the most riffed-on cocktail in the world because of the ways in which you can stretch the boundaries of the ingredients,” says Patrick Poelvoorde, lead bartender at Violet’s in San Francisco. “While the general recipe is rather simple, the combinations are endless.”
Case in point: Poelvoorde’s Crossover Old Fashioned on the menu at Violet’s, and the bar’s most popular drink. “We use rye, bourbon, and brandy as the base spirits, which provides a very complex bouquet at the start,” he says. Cardamaro, a cardoon-infused fortified wine, contributes sweetness and more complexity. “Served on a large cube of ice with an expressed lemon peel, the drink has a velvety texture with balanced notes of herbs, flowers, grain, and spice.”
The New Boots at Honeybee’s brings together Elijah Craig Small Batch with Amaro CioCiaro — “tasting of coca, leather, and spice,” according to beverage director Sother Teague — along with Memphis Barbeque Bitters and Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters. “It’s like a bourbon and cherry Coke at a barbecue, all in the style of an Old Fashioned,” he says.
And at Paper Daisy in New York, the Cold Brew Old Fashioned combines Elijah Craig Barrel Proof with Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur and angostura bitters — a powerful whiskey cocktail with the coffee liqueur contributing a rich character and subtle sweetness. “It’s delicious and keeps you going,” says beverage director Tommy Flynn.
Most modern-day mixologists, of course, wouldn’t choose the fruited version, which Sother Teague likens to “a single serving of punch”: sweet and fruity, rather than powerfully spirit-forward. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for that rendition at the bar. “Today we have delicious unadulterated options for whiskey, and don’t need the fruit — unless we just want it,” Teague says. “Drink how you like.”
In truth, there’s room for every kind of Old Fashioned in the cocktail world, because drinkers never seem to tire of it. Nor do the bartenders eagerly experimenting with the form. “From muddling fruit to smoking, to barrel-aging to gelatinizing, it appeals to a wide selection of imbibers and constantly pleases all,” says Poelvoorde.
“While people will send back a martini, claiming that it isn’t the correct vodka, no one sends back an Old Fashioned.”