The old-fashioned is a classic cocktail that likes to change up its outfit. At its core, it’s a lightly sweetened whiskey-based lowball. Those who prefer a drier drink with a hint of spice will opt for rye, while others prefer the smooth roundness of bourbon. Some bartenders add a slice of orange or a cherry just before serving, and others mix the fruit into the drink; sometimes it is served without fruit at all. These myriad variations beg the question: is there a “right” way to make an old-fashioned?
The drink has a long history, and it hasn’t always carried the archetypal title. “The name on his birth certificate was Whiskey Cocktail,” writes Robert Simonson in his book “The Old-Fashioned,” citing the original technical scheme of any cocktail: spirits, sugar, bitters, and water. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the name “old-fashioned” originated, but in the mid-19th century in the United States it seems likely, as traditionalists snubbed new versions of cocktails, asking the “to the old” or purified. -drink versions instead of concoctions with newly available added ingredients.
It wasn’t until Prohibition that fruit crept into the drink. This shift to a more fruity profile was likely due to the poor quality of alcohol at the time, since spirits were produced illegally, under less than ideal conditions. By mixing sweet fruit with alcohol, its rough finish was masked somewhat, making it a more palatable drink.
After the repeal of prohibition and the legalization of alcohol production, the quality of spirits naturally improved dramatically, but many bartenders continued to make old-fashioned spirits with fruit. Orange and a canned cherry (like a maraschino) would typically be used to muddle; and as Simonson notes in his book, some bartenders, like Oscar Tschirky (who worked at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan from 1893 to 1943), even insisted on adding pineapple. “The fruit salad model remains popular, particularly in the American Heartland and with older generations, and likely will remain so,” Simonson said via email. “This version has been the norm for too many decades to just die out.”
According to Dale DeGroff, author of “The New Craft of the Cocktail”, the quality of the fruit is essential to making an exceptional drink. “I use Bordeaux cherries from Oregon, which are fabulous,” he said. “They are really natural, plump and juicy.” He explained that while consulting bartenders in London, he once made two different versions of the old one for the group – one with muddled fruit and one with just whisky, a sugar cube and bitters – to see which they preferred. “A good half of the room liked the one with the muddled orange and cherry,” he said.
The question of fruit or no fruit is just one of the ways the old fashioned is a divisive drink. Sometimes another type of alcohol replaces whiskey as the base spirit. Cocktail lovers experiment with swapping everything from rum to mezcal. In Wisconsin – where residents consume more Korbel brandy than any other state – there is a regional variation of the classic. “Two key characteristics differentiate an old-school Wisconsin style from a classic old-fashioned style,” said Michael Morton of Dyeland Hospitality. “The first is the use of brandy in place of whisky, and the second is the addition of club soda.” Morton added that at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the drink isn’t made with jumbled fruit, but is topped with a “flag” — a slice of orange and a cherry on a cocktail pick.
Purists might consider inventive versions of the old-fashioned outrageous, but DeGroff argues that some variations on the classic can be delicious, pointing to mezcal-based tequila reposado and Old-Fashioned Oaxacan (invented by Phil Ward of Death & Co. in New York) as one of his personal favorites. Bartenders continue to riff on these new releases, too. For example, at San Francisco’s Interval, the Oaxacan Old-Fashioned is served with Ancho Reyes (a chilli liqueur) and chocolate bitters. “Our twist on Phil Ward’s modern classic adds a smoky spice twist,” says Beverage Director Ty Caudle.
The Old-Fashioned is far from the only cocktail with a lot of riffs; the daiquiri (strawberry, Hemingway) and martini (vodka vs gin; dirty, Vesper, espresso) are other examples of multi-faceted drinks. As to why there are so many variations on the classics, DeGroff attributes this constant innovation to the creativity of bartenders: “The old fashion was adopted by the craft movement of the new millennium as a sort of mother sauce, a base. “And when it comes to growing on those foundations, the sky really is the limit.