Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail:
Are you sure that is the "original" recipe?

By George Sinclair (2nd May, 2003)

The “Old Fashioned”, as it is more commonly known, is the perfect cocktail, not just from a flavour point of view, but also from other aspects. It has all the criteria for judging the proficiency of a bartender, in their bartending abilities, and their dedication to the cause. The cause, to which I am referring, is that of historical accuracy, and how a bartender sees what they are doing in this wider perspective.

“When properly made, this cocktail [the old fashioned] can represent the pinnacle of the bartenders trade. When done improperly, which is more often the case, it can be a disaster of mediocrity.”

– Robert Hess, Drinkboy.com

It is, all too often, taken for granted that the cocktail recipe that one was initially taught is the indisputably original, correct, authentic recipe. This way of thinking is based on the incorrect assumption that the teacher, who taught you, will have been shown the correct recipe to begin with. The best way to avoid perpetuating mistakes, and so-called “improvements”, is to delve a little, into the past. Historical Investigation can, even when just looking at the two words, cause people’s eyes to glaze over. “I am a bartender, not an historian!” goes the cry. That may be so in most cases, but to make drinks and call them “the original recipe”, “the authentic recipe” etc is to proclaim something else entirely. A bartender, or a well printed bar book, which proclaims historical accuracy invokes scrutiny upon itself.

If a bartender proclaims neither historical accuracy, nor divine assistance, then they are making drinks to their own preferences, whether they be personal or commercial. No false claims will have been asserted, and so none will need to be defended from curious minds, asking politely for some form of substantiation.

“The drinks I make are delicious” is a subjective assertion, and the individual’s taste buds are the judging panel.

“The drinks I make are the originals” is an objective assertion, and will need to be proven historically.

Any cocktail can be changed, and then said by its deviator to taste “better”. But no recipe can be referred to as the “original”, unless that is indeed the case. Referring to a recipe, as “the earliest known” is entirely truthful, as it leaves the door open for any earlier recipes to be discovered, thus saving oneself from potential embarrassment.

You may not have noticed it before, but take a closer look at those bar books, and stolen bar menus, note their spurious claims.

Please be aware that I am not saying that original recipes are the only recipes to be used, nor am I saying that they are the better recipes.

I now return back to the “Old Fashioned” cocktail, being as it is the pretence for this diatribe on “bar-honesty”, and point out some falsities that need highlighting.

The earliest known reference to fruit being muddled in an Old Fashioned is from:

Burke’s Complete Cocktail and Tastybite Recipes”, by Harman Burney Burke (1936)

Old Fashioned Cocktail

Whiskey, 1 Glass
Sugar, 1 Lump
Angostura Bitters, 2 Dashes
Curacao or Absinthe, 2 Dashes

Add one Slice of Orange, one Slice of Lemon Peel, mull with the Bitters and Sugar, then add the Whiskey and serve in the same glass.

Note: American Prohibition lasted from 1920 until 1933. During this time sub-standard spirits were often bolstered with fresh fruits, in an attempt to hide their less than satisfactory taste.

And while I am on the topic of fruit and the Old Fashioned:

Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion”, by Crosby Gaige, (1941)

“Serious-minded persons omit fruit salad from “Old Fashioneds,” while the frivolous window-dress the brew with slices of orange, sticks of pineapple, and a couple of turnips.”

Crosby Gaige also relates the response he received from a bartender, when he was foolhardy enough to request an Old Fashioned made without fruit:

'Young impudent sir,' he screamed, '...Man and boy I've built Old-Fashioned cocktails these 60 years...and I have never yet had the perverted nastiness of mind to put fruit in an Old-Fashioned. Get out, scram, go over to the Palmer House and drink.' I was rebuked."

This is one of my all-time favourite quotes, regardless of topic. Such indignation is hard to come by.

The earliest known reference to the “Colonel Pepper story”, the much-repeated yarn of the Old Fashioned’s creation is from 1931.

Old Waldorf Bar Days” by Albert Stevens Crockett (1931)

This was brought to the old Waldorf in the days of its “sit-down” Bar, and introduced by, or in honor of, Col. James E. Pepper, of Kentucky, proprietor of a celebrated whiskey of the period. The Old-fashioned Whiskey cocktail was said to have been the invention of a bartender at the famous Pendennis Club in Louisville, of which Col. Pepper was a member.

The style of writing has a very “just mentioning what I heard” approach, giving the impression that the author is just repeating a rumour they chanced upon. How exactly did every other cocktail book author miss this story, or think it unworthy of mention, until 1931?

Note: The Pendennis Club was founded in 1881, and the “sit-down” bar was opened in 1893.

Modern American Drinks
By George J. Kappeler

The 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 ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass."

The Old Fashioned is exactly what it’s first known recipe states, “Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail”. A Whisky cocktail made in the old fashioned (old style).

The first reference to a cocktail is dated 1806, from an American Magazine called “The Balance”.

“Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters - it is vulgarly called bittered sling and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion"

The above definition of a cocktail is exactly that of an Old Fashioned, albeit the water coming in the form of ice. Obviously there must have been a time when the Old Fashioned was new, and therefore referred to simply as a "Whiskey Cocktail".

How to Mix Drinks”, by Jerry Thomas, (1862)

109. Whiskey Cocktail
(Use small bar glass.)

3 or 4 dashes of gum syrup.
2 do. Bitters (Bogart’s)
1 wine-glass of whiskey, and a piece of lemon peel.
Fill one-third full of fine ice; shake and strain in a fancy red wine-glass.

This recipe, of Thomas', is better designated as a precursor to the fully fledged "Old Fashioned", rather than actually being an "Old Fashioned" itself. The sugar comes in the liquid form of gum syrup (sirop de gomme), and the water is constituent in the fine ice. As the precursor to the "Old Fashioned", the listed recipe dispells many bartenders 'convictions' towards sugar syrup, and the shaking of clear spirits. If it was good once, then it can be good again. The most interesting difference, for me, is that Thomas prepares his "Whiskey Cocktail" in a separate container before pouring the libation into its serving glass.

George's Re-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail (2002).

2- 3 shots of Bourbon Whisky,
¼- ½ shot of Sugar Syrup,
2 dashes of Bitters,

Stir with ice, then strain into an ice filled whisky glass (keep the glass and ice in the freezer); then garnish with an orange twist.

There are a few published bartenders who claim that they are using original, authentic “Old Fashioned” recipes, but are in fact using their own preferences, and then portraying them falsely.

Such bartenders are lacking in “bar-honesty”, which, I feel, is directly related to personal integrity and, dare I say, intelligence.

Without these false claims, these persons are just like any other bartender, making their own cocktails, to their own specific preferences. They wish to be associated with an historical tradition, as this, for them, is a desirable accolade to attain; yet they are clearly wanting in this department.

Thanks for reading.

George Sinclair