The Old-Fashioned is the quintessential classic cocktail. In the title of his new book devoted to its history, New York Times drinks writer Robert Simonson calls it the “world’s first classic cocktail.”
But classic shouldn’t be confused with unchanging. As Simonson makes clear in his well-researched and thoroughly enjoyable “The Old-Fashioned,” the drink was pretty much designed to be customized.
And not only by savvy barkeeps with access to coriander syrup and specific Aquavits, although their contributions to the Old-Fashioned canon are included in a lengthy compendium of recipes, old and new (yes, Wisconsin’s famed brandy Old-Fashioned merits a page.) The Old-Fashioned is a chance for cocktailians who’ve fallen into the habit of ceding spirit decisions to the experts to have a say about what’s in their glasses.
Simonson holds up his mother as an exemplar of Old-Fashioned drinking culture: “It was something I enjoyed drinking, and I could control what I wanted by telling the bartender not to put too much liquor in it, or to put a lot of fruit in it,” she told her son. “You could almost make up a recipe.”
Of course, there are deviations which pain purists: Namely, fruit salad. As early as 1936, a New York Times letter writer was griping about “a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple and cherry.” (Simonson theorizes the Prohibition-era fruit avalanche might have disguised cheap liquor, or paid tribute to the tropical rum concoctions that jet-setting drinkers imbibed on libertine trips to Cuba.)
But as Simonson writes, alongside traditionalism, there is invention. The Old-Fashioned emerged in the 1880s, an on-the-rocks result of drinkers’ longing for the whiskey cocktails served before a widespread drive to “improve” recipes nearly did in the unadorned mix of whiskey, sugar and bitters. Drinkers have been tweaking it ever since.
The Old-Fashioned was so popular by the 1940s, when The New Yorker declared the drink a national institution, that bars came up with time-saving ways to make them: Bartenders premixed bitters with simple syrup, or soaked sugar cubes in bitters. Yet it was impossible to fully mechanize the process because “drinkers still took pains to specify their style of Old-Fashioned: with lemon peel only; with fruit as garnish; with muddled fruit; with soda or no soda,” Simonson writes. “But they drank them by the gallon.”
After a brief period of obscurity, the Old-Fashioned is back. Simonson credits the resurgence to the current generation of revival-minded bartenders; Don Draper and a surge in bitters production, giving drinkers previously unforeseen ways to personalize a classic cocktail.
The whiskey cocktail that inspired the standard Old-Fashioned was considered a “matutinal cocktail,” meaning it was drunk first thing in the morning. Simonson quotes from an 1874 Pennsylvania newspaper story advising “a bourbon whiskey cocktail before breakfast is the best thing for complexion.”
Today, beyond the obligatory bloody Marys on Sunday, cocktails are typically reserved for later in the day. But should you choose the resurrect the tradition of daybreak drinking, McCrady’s head bartender, Ryan Casey, offers the following recipe:
The Breakfast of Champions
2 oz. Laird’s Bonded Applejack
.5 oz. fresh orange juice
.25 oz. fresh lemon juice
.25 oz. maple syrup (grade B is recommended)
1 dash Bitter Truth Lemon Bitters (recommended not required)
Combine ingredients in cocktail shaker. Shake hard for 30 seconds. Rest for 30 seconds. Strain into juice glass. Enjoy.