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The old fashioned cocktail is defined by its strong flavor. This iconic beverage was created over a century ago, and continues to reign as America’s go-to cocktail.
History of the Old Fashioned
The old fashioned cocktail recently became famous again after being featured as Don Draper’s drink of choice in the hit TV show series “Mad Men”. In reality, this drink has been around for quite a while, and was popular well before the 1960’s.
The origin story of this cocktails creation is vague. Throughout the last two centuries, multiple people claimed to be the original creator of this drink. The first reports of the cocktail being consumed date back to the early 1800s.
People were drinking mixed beverages of bitters, sugars, and liquor (usually gin, sometimes brandy or rum). Water would be mixed in, and sometimes the strong drink would be served with a sprinkle of spices to garnish.
In America, we have to documentation and written works to support the theory that old fashioned cocktails were being served bars as early as the 1830s.
The ingredients and ratios slowly began to change as the drink became a staple in different regions. Eventually, the gin was completely abandoned, and bourbon or rye was primarily used instead.
Today the title of the official creator of the old fashioned (as we know it) is held by bartender James E. Pepper. He worked in the Pendennis club in Louisville, Kentucky. His objective was to create a beverage that would appeal to aristocratic patrons, and he hoped this cocktail would draw in the business of other wealthy folk.
The drink became so popular over time, it could easily be served without introduction. The muddled sugar and the sweet smells of the bourbon instantly give the drink away. We believe the drink truly solidified its place in the drink hall of fame after the prohibition era.
Bartenders would muddle sugar and bitters into a glass. They would serve the empty glass to a guest with an entire bottle of bourbon. This was considered to be a gesture of good faith, and of course people enjoyed the unrestricted access to the alcohol again.
What Goes Into an Old Fashioned?
Originally, the drink was created using gin. The beverage grew in popularity around the world, and the recipe was modified. Rye was swapped out for gin because people liked the spicy tones of this liquor. The heat that rye created added another layer of flavor to the cocktail, and gin was put back on the shelf.
If you were to order an old-fashioned today, it would likely be made with bourbon (our go-to is Buffalo Trace but you can use your favorite bourbon). The rum old fashioned is still a popular variation, although they are certainly less common.
It is not clear when this change from rye occurred, and drinkers appear to be divided over which liquor they prefer in their old fashioned. Sometimes bartenders will use a rye-whiskey, which seems like a reasonable compromise.
An old fashioned cocktail uses two variety of bitters: Angostura and orange. Bitters are added to the cocktail to inject a sharp taste to the beverage, which adds complexity to the flavor profile of the drink.
Bitters are a botanical concoction, and will activate the aromatic properties of the cocktail. As you lift your glass, the smell of the drink will greet you well before your lips taste the alcohol. This olfactory reaction will stimulate your taste buds, and you will eagerly anticipate the flavour of the cocktail. When you taste the drink, you feel the reward after the anticipation, and the overall experience of the cocktail is heightened.
To balance the bitter tones, a cube of sugar is included in the cocktail. Sometimes bartenders will soak a cube fo sugar in the bitters, and then muddle them at the base of the glass. This will ensure the two ingredients are fully incorporated.
Water is essential for this drink. Old fashioned cocktails are served with an over-sized, super clear ice cube. This large frozen mass will slowly melt, and water will seep into the beverage at an even pace. Diluting the cocktail will mellow out the flavors of the alcohol.
This will decrease the potent kick you can experience when you get a mouthful of strong liquor. This is important, because that strong kick can overwhelm your senses and take away from the whole drink experience. Remember, if you are sipping to try and get through a beverage instead of sipping to enjoy the beverage, something is wrong with your recipe!
Helpful Tips for Making the Perfect Old Fashioned
To fully activate your bitters, use a muddler to mix the sugar and bitters together. The sugar should fully absorb the bitter and turn into a bright orange-brown color. The texture will be similar to a paste. At this point, you can add your bourbon and ice.
A garnish of fresh orange is typically included with this beverage. Some people will only use the peel of an orange, but beware: leaving any citrus fruit peel in your drink will increase the bitter flavors. The natural oils found in all citrus juices tend to go bitter when exposed over time.
Choosing a unique ice-cube mould for your cocktail is an easy way to increase the wow-factor of your drink. To truly be fancy, you can freeze a piece of orange into an oversized ice cube. The presentation will be impressive and unique.
The old fashioned cocktail is the most popular cocktail in the United States. If you travel internationally and order this drink, it will likely peg you as an American. If you get the chance to travel abroad, be sure to order this drink for your international friends to try. Soon this drink might become their favorite too!
P.S. – check out our smoked old fashioned recipe for one of the most popular variations of this all time classic cocktail.
Old Fashioned Cocktail
- Soak the sugar cubes or sugar in the bitters. Muddle the mixture at the bottom of a glass.
- Add the ice cube.
- Pour the alcohol over the ice. Garnish with fresh orange. Enjoy!
Bourbon or Rye?
This recipe is made with bourbon whiskey, but that’s not a knock on rye. Rye whiskey can make a spectacular old fashioned and in fact, some people prefer rye to the traditional bourbon. Don’t be afraid to substitute your favorite rye whiskey into this old fashioned recipe!
We hope you’ve enjoyed this recipe and guide for how to make an Old Fashioned! If you want to learn more about this cocktail, head over to our comparison of Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktails next!