Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 22

Old Fashioned Cocktail: A Brief History 

There are many competing narratives surrounding the history of the Old Fashioned – many have been credited with its invention and many more have debated what constitutes a “real” Old Fashioned. So, here’s a brief, anecdotal and at least partially accurate account of this classic cocktail. 

In 1806, the first published version of a cocktail resembling an Old Fashioned appeared as an editorial response in New York publication, The Balance and Columbian Repository. The paper’s editor described a cocktail called a Bittered Sling that was a “potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar.” Similarly, in 1833, Scottish travel writer J.E. Alexander publishes a book where he mentions a New York cocktail he had come across that was made rum, gin, or brandy, significant water, bitters, sugar, and a nutmeg garnish. With little recorded history of early versions of the Old Fashioned, it began as a basic cocktail recipe for any spirit, rather than a specific whiskey cocktail. 

A bartender’s guide of basic cocktails, published by Jerry Thomas in 1862, included a Whiskey Cocktail resembling these earlier, more generic cocktail recipes. During the 1870s, bartenders began making improved whiskey cocktails with newly available liqueurs, such as absinthe, curacao and chartreuse. In 1876, Thomas published a revised version of his guide, along with an improved Whiskey Cocktail that involved the addition of maraschino and absinthe.  In response to an explosion of fancy new drinks, bar patrons seeking out a simple, more austere cocktail, would ask for a drink made “the old-fashioned way.” 

In 1936, following the end of Prohibition, the New York Times published a letter to the editor written by a man known only as “Old Timer,” offering his lamentation for a simpler drink. He writes of a time when a bartender would moisten a lump of sugar with bitters and drop in some ice, before passing the glass and a bottle of good bourbon to the customer to pour himself. It’s thought that muddling fruit, such as orange, lemon, maraschino cherries probably originated during the Prohibition era as a means of disguising rough spirits.

The oldest published recipe of the Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail dates back 1895, written by George Kappeler in a book called Modern American Drink. To make an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, “dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.” Kappeler’s recipe, 125 years later, still stands up as a classic version of an Old Fashioned. 

The Old Fashioned has a long and storied history and has truly stood the test of time. While some people enjoy this cocktail the old-fashioned way, many others view it an excellent jumping off point for more creative inventions. There is no doubt that this hotly contested cocktail will continue to be celebrated for many years to come. 

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and server at C’est What)