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Cocktail History: the Old Fashioned

Posted by Evan Prish on

Known for its wonderful simplicity, the Old Fashioned is one of the oldest recorded cocktails from the United States.  Consisting of mostly liquor, this classic cocktail is a favorite of whiskey drinkers and can be found on just about every bar or restaurant’s drink list.  Its recipe dates to the early 1800s, however, at that time it wasn’t called an Old Fashioned…

In May of 1806, a New York based newspaper called the Balance and Colombian Repository wrote an article in which it used the word ‘cocktail’- one of the earliest recorded uses of the word.  Subsequently, a curious reader who had never heard of this word wrote a letter to the editor asking him to define ‘cocktail’.  In the next week’s edition of the paper, the editor defined ‘cocktail’ as the following:

“A potent concoction of spirits, sugar, water and bitters”.

Quite the description, right?

Now, if you’re making this ‘cocktail’ and the spirit you’re using is whiskey, this is the exact recipe for an Old Fashioned!  While other spirits were used as a base for ‘cocktails’, it should come as no surprise that the most popular spirit for ‘cocktails’ in the early-mid 1800s was whiskey – particularly rye whiskey.

The addition of muddled fruit is more of a modern twist on the cocktail, meant to add a hint of citrusy sweetness to its flavor profile, as well as take away some of the sharpness from the whiskey.  However, many contemporary cocktail purists scoff at the idea of tainting it with any such additional ingredients. 

With that being said, there is absolutely nothing sacrilegious about muddling fruit to make an Old Fashioned, as this is often the preferred method of modern Old Fashioned drinkers.  At the end of the day, it all depends on your own personal tastes and preferences!  When it comes to cocktails, very little is set in stone.  After all, mixology is a creative artform of which there are no rules (besides following a proper recipe and using quality ingredients).

So where did the name Old Fashioned come from?

Around the mid-1800s ‘cocktails’ began to dramatically increase in popularity.  To keep up with demand, bartenders started incorporating new ingredients and flavors into their ‘cocktails’.  Bar-goers whose tastes were more aligned with the original ‘cocktail’ began asking their bartenders for something a little simpler, something a little more ‘old-fashioned’. 

Thus, the name ‘Old Fashioned’ was born.  Its evolution went from ‘cocktail’ to ‘old fashioned cocktail’ to eventually just ‘Old Fashioned’.  Over the ensuing years and decades, the name stuck and has remained the same to this very day.

The Old Fashioned represents so much more than just a cocktail: it represents over 200 years of history that has been tried and tested by bartenders and mixologists alike.  Its recipe was included in famed mixologist Jerry Thomas’s 1862 cocktail recipe book, Bartenders Guide – the very first cocktail recipe book written in the United States.   

While the United States has gone through many significant changes over the same time period, the Old Fashioned has more or less remained the exact same cocktail that Americans were drinking as early as 1806.  History may change, but some things remain the same.

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