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The Old Fashioned Old Fashioned

August 12, 2011

When I got back from the trip to Pennsylvania, there was a package waiting for me. It was two airplane bottles of VeeV. Someday soon I’m going to try my hand at producing better cocktails with the stuff than the guy at Ruby Tuesday’s corporate headquarters. I don’t expect it to be hard, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did included VeeV in a drink I submitted for Virgin Atlantic’s Next Top Cocktail contest.  You should really try your hand at this contest, as I’d be curious to talk more about this once the contest period closes on August 16.

But today isn’t about fanciful cocktails, it’s about The Cocktail.

On the farm in Pennsylvania I found almost everything I needed in order to make this classic drink, and it may be the thing that turned my father-in-law around on rye. And oddly enough it wasn’t Donald Draper who inspired me to make it, but rather Rachel Maddow.

There is a great history of the cocktail from my friends at the 12 Bottle Bar that is really worth reading. For those in a rush, I’ll try to summarize it for you:

A long time ago, booze didn’t taste that great, so it was used to make punch. Punch was a cumbersome affair, and Americans are credited/blamed for downsizing it to an individual portion known as The Sling. But The Sling wasn’t that great, so it evolved into better drinks, namely The Toddy, The Julep, and The Cocktail.

The cocktail is simply sugar muddled with bitters and water, ice, and a generous amount of spirits.

To get a drink like that in this day and age, you will need to order an Old Fashioned. In theory, that should be shorthand for a cocktail made in the old-fashioned style, as mentioned above. But somehow, in some places, it has morphed into a phantasmagorical fizzy highball of muddled maraschino cherries and orange slices. Egads.

There are many who eschew the use of seltzer in their Old Fashioned, but not Rachel Maddow. I actually really like the way she uses just a little bit of the stuff to help do the hard work of dissolving the bitters soaked sugar cube.

But it’s probably best just to show you the video.

In all honesty, I do not think it is possible to get any two people to agree on a definition of what an Old Fashioned should be. Perhaps that’s why I love the description of the drink in Michael Jackson’s The Pocket Bartender’s Guide. He explains that it is:

A classic whiskey cocktail, for which there are countless recipes. The whiskey must be American, and some argue specifically for rye. Some argue that the sugar should be in the form of syrup; others accept cubes muddled with water. Some hold out for Angostura bitters; others favor Peychaud…Some drinkers like a swoosh of soda; others object. Add a twist of lemon to the drink. Garnish with a slice of orange and, if you must, a maraschino cherry. An Old Fashioned can be agreeably embellished with a dash of Curacao.

For me, like for Maddow, the drink is really simply an enhanced glass of whiskey. A little sugar to whet the appetite, a few dashes of bitters for added spice, and a bit of ice to cool and dilute the spirit. Generally I don’t have oranges or lemons just laying around, but a wide swath of their zest would add its bright fragrance as well.

Muddling the bitters and sugar in the bottom of a glass brings me a great deal of satisfaction. It adds to the anticipation of the drink, and I feel like I’m participating in an ancient rite, which in many ways I am. But that’s where I stop. There are some who I greatly admire and respect who insist on muddling the orange zest as well. Maybe that’s fine for the Ritz, but at home I would just as soon release the orange’s oils above the surface of the drink.

A more extensive discussion of using fruit and its zest in cocktails seems to be emerging.

Just know this: an Old Fashioned should look like whiskey, smell like whiskey and taste like whiskey. Its sole purpose was to make bad whiskey taste better, and more like good whiskey. Good whiskey is not sticky sweet, fizzy, or clouded with fruit pulp. If you’ve got good whiskey to start with, I’d recommend you try to enjoy it on its own terms. But if you cannot, or simply feel like something a bit more festive, you should give this a try.

Just be careful where you try and get one. Ruby Tuesday’s despite its cocktail improvements cannot make an Old Fashioned Cocktail. They are one of many bars that somehow think they can operate a beverage program without stocking aromatic cocktail bitters.

I know, it’s shocking.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2011 11:35 am

    I’ve developed an appreciation for whisk(e)y and bourbon recently, and the Old Fashioned is one of my go-to drinks if other things on the special menu seem too sticky sweet. However, what’s the best way to order the drink so that you end up with what you want? I’ve heard ordering it “perfect” will prevent too much sweetness from creeping in, but I would love some guidance on that when I’m not making my own at home.

  2. Phairhead permalink
    August 12, 2011 1:59 pm

    My father’s favourite drink is a bourbon old fashioned….what I’m gathering from yr post is that an old fashioned is whiskey only, what has my pop been drinking all these years?

    • August 12, 2011 3:58 pm

      Rye and bourbon are whiskeys.

    • August 12, 2011 4:04 pm

      It sounds like he’s been drinking a bourbon old fashioned. Bourbon is s specific variety of American whiskey. Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in charred new oak barrels.

      For the record, one variation was left out of the post, and that is the one with brandy instead of whiskey. Brandy played a central role in the early days of the cocktail. Now that I think of it, I’m kind of curious about applejack too. Obviously, more research is required.

      • phairhead permalink
        August 14, 2011 1:50 pm

        so is a bourbon old fashioned still an old fashioned?

      • August 15, 2011 9:13 am

        Most definitely.

        Even with the rise in popularity of rye, bourbon still dominates the American whiskey market. So I think it’s safe to say that most old fashioned cocktails are indeed made with bourbon. And since rye isn’t top of mind for most people, if you asked them what spirit is used in an old fashioned, they would say bourbon. It’s indeed one of the correct answers.

  3. August 12, 2011 11:47 pm


    That's me squinting.

    Oh well. At least we can agree on pig fat.

  4. AddiesDad permalink
    August 18, 2011 11:48 am

    Daniel, do you know of “The Algonquin”. I saw this mentioned somewhere, and checked the specs at, and mixed up a shaker full for some guests last night, and it was delicious. This seems right up your alley, and I suggest you give it a try if you haven’t yet. I used Hudson Manhattan Rye, a pricey cocktail, but the only Rye I had in the house!

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