There once was a drink called the Whiskey Cocktail, made with rye or bourbon, sugar, water and bitters, and served with a swath of lemon peel. Adhering to the very definition of a cocktail, it was simple, strong and very popular—especially in the morning. (Hey, it was the 1860s!) But within two decades, New York Times beverage writer Robert Simonson tells us in his book, The Old-Fashioned, the dandies (19th-century hipsters, one supposes) got their hands on the Whiskey Cocktail and the recipe went haywire. Absinthe, Chartreuse, curaçao and maraschino showed up in so-called “Improved” Whiskey Cocktails, in some instances at the same time. So, to get their accustomed tipple, purists took to ordering theirs the “old-fashioned” way, giving birth to the Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, or more simply, the Old-Fashioned. Peace was restored. For a time.
Following the repeal of Prohibition, the Old-Fashioned enjoyed a resurgence—notably among women—but it was once again an object of revision for bartenders who started adding fruit, either muddling into or crowning it with orange, lemon, cherries, pineapple, even lime! The fruited Old-Fashioned became the standard bearer for generations thereafter, thanks to the Mr. Boston bar manuals. But once again, cocktail conservationists are calling for their Old-Fashioneds the old-fashioned way: fruit free, save perhaps for a little citrus-swath garnish. “We are in a renaissance of the Old-Fashioned,” Simonson said at July’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. But at Oak & Ivy, the new whiskey and cocktails spot at Downtown’s Container Park, barman Christopher Gutierrez and his compatriots will simply ask how you like yours. So what’ll it be?
Where better to begin than with this, the Old-Fashioned’s direct ancestor? The recipe that follows comes from the book How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion, by Jerry Thomas, a celebrated mixologist of his day, who etched a place in cocktail history by authoring the first cocktail recipe book ever printed.
You’ll note that this recipe differs from the contemporary Old-Fashioned in several ways: no ice, syrup instead of sugar, and a stemmed glass instead of the traditional Old-Fashioned or rocks glass. In Thomas’ time, the whiskey used would likely have been rye, which was historically popular in the Eastern states. He calls for a ‘wine-glass’ measure of whiskey, the equivalent of 2 ounces. For the Boker’s, a popular bitters at the time of the book’s publication, you can substitute Angostura or another aromatic bitters of similar character. A half barspoon of simple syrup will equal the dashes of gum syrup prescribed. (If you want to stick with gum syrup, it can be bought from companies such as Small Hands Foods.) You may want to go sweeter, but there’s something nice about the austerity of this drink’s drier form. Cracked ice will do for the ‘fine’ ice called for here. There were no ‘Old-Fashioned glasses’ back then, so if you want a period-correct drink, use a small, squat wineglass—it should have about a 6-ounce capacity. The 1887 edition of Thomas’ book listed an Improved Whiskey Cocktail that called for dashes of absinthe and maraschino liqueur.
By Jerry Thomas, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon Vivant’s Companion (1862). Excerpt from The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail with Recipes & Lore, by Robert Simonson (Ten Speed Press, 2014; RobertSimonson.net).
- 3 or 4 dashes of gum syrup
- 2 dashes of bitters (Boker’s)
- 1 wineglass of whiskey, and a piece of lemon peel
Fill one third full of fine ice; shake and strain in a fancy red-wine glass.