Friday, February 6, 2015

Understanding the Old Fashioned

"The Old Fashioned is a concept. Not a specific drink," says Sean Kenyon, an award-winning mixologist based in Denver. His point is that there is no exact spec for it. There are many different right ways to make an Old Fashioned.

Historically, the Old Fashioned is the bridge between punches and cocktails. It has the five punch ingredients: alcohol, citrus, spice, sugar, and water. It also involves a bit of ceremony in the making, as punches often did.

The punch tradition came to Europe from India in the mid-17th century. Later, people began to adapt traditional punch recipes for single-serving preparation and the modern cocktail was born.

Just as the Old Fashioned isn't really a cocktail, some believe its name isn't really a name but a description. They believe it referred to the 'old-fashioned' way of drinking bourbon and rye, with sugar and water. By the end of the 19th century, the best whiskeys were well-enough made to be enjoyed straight, so the once ubiquitous practice of adding sugar to bourbon or rye was dying out. People who continued to enjoy it that way would request an "old-fashioned bourbon," which was eventually shortened to simply "old-fashioned."

The use of bitters and citrus fruit garnishes were innovations of the cocktail era that were incorporated into the Old Fashioned tradition.

At Lexington's Keeneland Race Track one afternoon, drinking with Elmer T. Lee, the legendary Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, he ordered a "highball" of Buffalo Trace Bourbon and 7Up. Put a dash of bitters in that and it's an Old Fashioned. Despite Mr. Lee's endorsement, Bourbon and Seven is considered a lowbrow cocktail these days, but all of the elements are there linking it to a mixed drink tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

The mistake most home bartenders make with simple mixers is too much mixer. In the South, a properly made Jack and Coke contains more Jack than Coke and is served in an on-the-rocks glass, not as a highball. It's the same if the mixer is a lemon-lime soda like 7Up or Sprite. Both drinks were corrupted by bars that wanted to serve a big drink with relatively little alcohol in it, and consumers who don't like whiskey and prefer to mask its taste, but sometimes the old ways are better.

Everyone should feel free to drink their drinks however they like, but you don't have to follow the herd.


mike halfacre said...

This was great. Thanks.

Robert Griffin said...

I'm a big fan and regular reader, Chuck, but I'm afraid your source led you astray. Thanks to David Wondrich's scholarship we actually know a good deal about this drink and need not simply conjecture. The Old Fashioned has no relationship to punch (which comes from Dutch and British sailors working southeast Asia and trying to make the local Arrack palatable, not India in particular). It was the first cocktail, first appearing in the US in the early decades of the 19th century, and simply known as 'cocktail' - always made with liquor, sugar, bitters, and water. If you wanted a brandy cocktail you used brandy. Or rum, or genever gin, etc. The only variations in its making were what brand of bitters were used, and the exact quantity of water and liquor. Citrus is not an ingredient, although lemon peel was sometimes employed. By the end of the 19th century, bartenders were becoming increasingly fancy, and adding such exotica as absinthe to their whiskey cocktails. Those who did not enjoy such innovations began to call for 'old-fashioned' whiskey cocktails, and the name stuck. As to the orange/cherry abomination, we can lay the blame for that squarely at the feet of untrained Prohibition bartenders who confused the garnish from the Collins. Large quantities of soda water is a similar mistake. The actual recipe (and there is one, it is consistent in every cocktail book of the 19th century): take a sugarcube (or a teaspoon of sugar), a dash or three of bitters, a splash of water (just enough to dissolve the sugar). Mix that up in a small rocks glass, add 2 oz of whiskey (or other spirit), ice, and you're done. Expressing the oil from a lemon peel (or muddling it with the sugar and bitters) adds a nice dimension, but under no circumstances should any juice enter the glass. If you must turn your Old Fashioned into a fruit cup, that is up to the taste of each individual, but there's absolutely nothing "old fashioned" about such practice.

Anonymous said...

7 and Seven. 7-up and Seagrams Seven Crown. What I think of as a bowing alley cocktail, as that was where I saw them consumed in my youth.

Tim said...

Excellent article. I was inspired by it to make an old fashioned style cocktail this afternoon. I dissolved a tsp sugar in about an ounce of water, added a few shakes of Angostura bitters, then a good shot of Appleton Estate amber rum, and plenty of ice cubes. It was one of the best cocktails I've ever made, and it was quick and easy to boot.

DMcG said...

Interesting, Robert.