Great Escapes

06.14.14

The Rise and Fall…and Rise Again of the Old-Fashioned

It started life as a 19th century pre-breakfast cocktail, endured a 13-year hiatus during Prohibition, then mutated into a “tarted-up fruit salad.” But now the Old-Fashioned is back, remixed to cocktail glory.

Ryan Gosling drops an ice cube into an Old-Fashioned glass. He dashes in a few drops of bitters, and then gently crushes the sugar with a muddler. He tops the concoction with a shot of bourbon and delicately spoons in a couple ice cubes. Then he slices a perfect peel from a fresh orange for garnish and proudly presents his masterpiece to Emma Stone…who proceeds to down both her drink and his own—in almost one gulp—before proclaiming, “It’s not my favorite.”

Despite Gosling’s flirtatious fail in Crazy, Stupid, Love, his craftsmanship of the iconic drink is impressive, according to Robert Simonson, cocktail writer for The New York Times and author of The Old-Fashioned, and one of the only on-screen performances that really gets the drink right.

And Simonson should know. At this point, he’s an Old-Fashioned expert. After watching his mom sip them during his childhood (it was her drink of choice), Simonson tried one for the first time in the 80s in his home state of Wisconsin (according to Simonson, brandy Old-Fashioneds are “basically Wisconsin’s state drink”). But it wasn’t until he tasted his first “modern” version in 2009 at Prime Meats in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn that he began to fall in love.

“They had an Old Fashioned at the top of the menu, and it was being made with special bitters, pear bitters that they were making in house,” Simonson says. “So I ordered one of those, and I just remember it being so incredibly delicious and also beautiful to look at. I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.”

Now, the Old-Fashioned isn’t one of his favorite drinks. He’s quick to correct it is his favorite drink. 

People came to recognize we have this great thing called bourbon. There’s no better cocktail for American whiskey to shine than the Old-Fashioned.”

This sentiment is shared by enthusiastic tipplers across the country, who are currently reveling in a culture that is not only all about fancy cocktails—complete with expert mixologists who have turned cocktail-making into an art form—but also where the Old-Fashioned has become the “it” drink. “I notice bars, they don’t have just an Old-Fashioned, but they have pages of Old-Fashioneds,” Simonson says. It’s cool to be a bourbon drinker again.

Old Fashioneds are an American classic, right up there with Martinis and Manhattans. But this exalted place in the bar pantheon was not easily won. Facing the perils of Prohibition and destructively “creative” bartenders, the drink has proved itself a survivor, worthy of its current popularity and status.

In the mid-19th century, the drink’s early incarnation was the Whiskey Cocktail, which was almost identical to the basic recipe we know and love today, except it called for simple syrup or gum syrup rather than a raw sugar cube. Oh, and it was commonly considered a morning drink—quite the sunrise pick-me-up. In 1874, a piece in Pennsylvania’s Indiana Progress recommended “a bourbon whiskey cocktail before breakfast is the best thing for complexion.”

But after bartenders began taking too many liberties with the classic recipe, unhappy purists began calling for a return to “old-fashioned cocktails.” Thus was born the Old-Fashioned. While multiple people claim to have created the definitive recipe, “there’s fairly strong evidence that the drink may have begun as a Chicago tipple,” Simonson writes.

Either way, the reborn classic quickly spread across the U.S…and moved to a more conventional drinking time. But the boom in popularity was cut short with the dawn of Prohibition, when drinking—and more importantly the availability of American whiskey—ground to a halt. 

While the Old-Fashioned was never in danger of being forgotten during the 13-year hiatus—because it was “so popular, so well known, so loved”—there was one small problem when the dry times ended.

“The moment people started setting up bars again, there was the Manhattan, there was the Martini, there was the Old-fashioned. [It] came right back. Except people sort of forgot how to make it,” Simonson says. “But they knew that there was a drink, the Old-Fashioned, that they liked.”

What ensued was an artistic free-for-all that resulted in the beloved, “no frills” drink of the past being turned into a “tarted-up fruit salad.” The newly revived recipe of the post-prohibition days called for the inclusion of a variety of fruit muddled into the formerly simple bourbon, bitters, sugar, ice of the old recipe, making the drink “kind of muddy and opaque,” not to mention diluted.

It took the resurgence of the cocktail culture in the early aughts and the rise of a dedicated group of mixologists to clean up the beloved drink and return it to its sophisticated, pure roots. According to Simonson, they did so by looking back at the old cocktail books of the late 1800s, following in the footsteps of its early creators.

“I think the Old-Fashioned craze has also dovetailed with a lot of drinkers coming back to whiskey,” Simonson says. “Whiskey was not very cool for a long time…people came to recognize we have this great thing called bourbon, and we used to have this great thing called rye, and it was actually really good, and why were we ignoring it. So they came back to American whiskey and there’s no better cocktail for American whiskey to shine than the Old-Fashioned.”

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'The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore' by Robert Simonson (Author), Daniel Krieger (Photographer). 176 p. Ten Speed Press. $12.01 ()

Now that the classic is back, many bartenders have started adding their own twists (they just can’t help themselves, can they?). When asked if we’re in danger of—once again—getting too fancy and ruining a perfectly sophisticated and simple recipe, Simonson disagrees. He believes there is room on the menu for both the old-school versions and modern interpretations. The only criteria: “They’ve got to be delicious.”

And in the end, variety is one of the components that makes this a truly American drink. “Within its 1806 embodiment of the cocktail incarnate—spirit, sweetner, bitters, water—there is traditionalism,” Simonson writes. “Amid the many variations that have followed, there is liberty and invention. By sticking to the variation you hold by, there is individualism. Moreover, it’s democratic: anyone can make one…there’s a lot of America in it.”

Today, the Old-Fashioned is enjoying its resurgence. It may well be permanent. “I think it’s here to stay,” Simonson says, “as long as people make them well and as long as the whiskey supply holds out.”

Robert Simonson’s Favorite “Modern Classic” Old-Fashioned Recipes:

Conference

Brian Miller, Death & Co., Manhattan, 2007

½ ounce Rittenhouse 100-Proof rye
½ ounce Buffalo Trace bourbon
½ ounce Busnel VSOP calvados
½ ounce Hine H cognac
1 teaspoon Demerara syrup (page 73)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters
Orange twist
Lemon twist

Combine all the ingredients except the orange and lemon twists in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest and a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.

Oaxaca Old-Fashioned

Phil Ward, Death & Co., Manhattan, 2007

1½ ounces El Tesoro Reposado tequila
½ ounce Del Maguey Single Village mezcal (Chichicapa or San Luis del Rio)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 barspoon agave nectar
Orange twist

Combine all the ingredients except the orange twist in an Old-Fashioned glass filled with one large ice cube. Stir until chilled. To top with a flamed orange twist, hold a piece of orange peel about the size of a silver dollar, skin side down, over the drink. Light a match and use it to warm the skin side of the peel. Holding the match a few inches above the drink, quickly squeeze the peel in the direction of the match. The oil from the peel will briefly erupt into flame, showering its essence over the drink’s surface.

The Rebennack

Chris Hannah, French 75 Bar, New Orleans, 2009

1¾ ounces rye
¾ ounce Amaro Averna
¼ ounce Clement Creole Shrubb
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Orange peel

Combine all the ingredients except the orange twist in a mixing glass filled with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled brandy snif­ter. To make the garnish, cut several thin strands of orange peel and tie them together with another strand of orange peel, then drop into glass.

Recipes were reprinted with permission from The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson, copyright (c) 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.