It’s been 200 years, but the not-so Old-Fashioned is still a cocktail to savor.
By Meaghan Dorman
Every good foundation starts with a brick. In the cocktail world, that brick is the Old-Fashioned, a simple blend of sugar, bitters, water, and spirit that later led to the Manhattan and the Martini. In the 1800s, when men drank a whole lot more and the misguided theory of Prohibition hadn’t yet been conceived, rye whiskey was the popular choice. In those days, when you needed something hearty to brace yourself against the long, laborious days, a dash of sugar to take the edge off the whiskey, bitters to protect your stomach, and a bit of dilution to help it go down was just the ticket. If you asked for a cocktail, an Old-Fashioned is what you got. Today, that concoction is just one of thousands of mixed drinks to choose from.
Then came 1920—the dawn of the Prohibition era. Along with all the Boardwalk Empire–esque crime and glamour, there was a major bastardization of cocktails. Skilled bartenders left the country, booze was made from anything and everything, and mixed drinks were concocted simply to cover up caustic hooch. When Prohibition was repealed and the Old-Fashioned reappeared, it had the addition of muddled orange and neon-red cherries, and usually a splash of club soda. Not exactly the best way to appreciate whiskey.
But in case you missed the news flash, we’re in the midst of a cocktail renaissance. Bartenders are bringing back the classics and making them with quality spirits and realistic proportions. You can get the Old-Fashioned made the old-fashioned way: just a sugar cube, bitters, good American rye, and water in the form of a nice chunk of ice. Add a little citrus zest and you’ve got a piece of bygone times—a drink made to sip so you can shrug off the day’s stress.
“It’s the father of all cocktails,” says Michael McIlroy, a longtime bartender at New York City’s cocktail mecca Milk & Honey. “It’s also how I judge new whiskies when I try them. If it makes a good Old-Fashioned, it’s worth while.” While the standard choice is rye, any quality whiskey can make a solid drink. Bartenders’ love for the Old-Fashioned has led not only to the use of other spirits, but to the birth of new cocktails. A Oaxaca Old-Fashioned uses mezcal and reposado tequila with agave nectar as the sweetener, and the Benton’s Old-Fashioned at PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York City uses maple syrup and a baconfat-washed bourbon. McIlroy and his co worker, Richard Boccato, spun the classic into the American Trilogy, using orange bitters, a brown-sugar cube, and equal parts rye whiskey and Laird’s bonded apple brandy.
The point of the original—and the cocktails it inspired—is to highlight the spirit without overwhelming it, and though the combination of bitter and sweet adds a bit of complexity, the spirit is still the backbone of the drink. While the current trend is for flavors and infusions to run amok in cocktails, this one keeps it simple in the best way. But in case you need another reason to stir up this classic masterpiece, take McIlroy’s advice: “Every Old-Fashioned you drink makes life a bit better.”
• One sugar cube
• Two healthy dashes of
• Two ounces rye whiskey
• One solid piece of ice
Combine all ingredients in a rocks
glass and stir. Garnish with a lemon
and orange peel, squeezing the
citrus oil on the drink first.