It’s October, quite possibly my favorite month of the year. The leaves are turning, the days are cool but the nights are not yet freezing, there’s often a smell of wood smoke in the air, Halloween decorations are going up, and pumpkin-flavored everything reigns throughout the land (which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your tastes).
This is the month in which my thoughts turn from light, refreshing drinks to warmer, stronger fare. This is a “hang out by a fire pit and sip whiskey” sort of month, and what better way to celebrate than a month-long investigation of that most venerable of cocktails, the Old Fashioned?
I’ve featured this drink and a few of its variations here before, but it’s worth revisiting. Over the next few weeks, you’ll see a series of articles, starting with this one, which touch on the drink and its many, many variants.
This week we’re focusing on three classics. Well, ok, two classics and one relatively obscure but interesting regional variant. These three drinks all share the name, and which one you get depends on where you are in the country, and what sort of bar you’re frequenting. Most high-end, cocktail-focused speakeasies will give you the original, while you’ll find the version I’m dubbing the “Modern Old Fashioned” in a lot of dives, sports bars, and restaurant bars. The Wisconsin Old Fashioned—which they just call an Old Fashioned up there—is a whole other beast, and a weird one, but we’ll get to that.
The Old Fashioned
To chronicle the history of the Old Fashioned is to chronicle the history of the cocktail itself. We’ve spoken before of slings, which in the early-1800s meant “liquor, water, sugar,” and of the evolution of the cocktail in the middle part of that century as a “bittered sling” – liquor, water, sugar, and bitters. So how’d the Old Fashioned go from being a whiskey cocktail to its current, ubiquitous name?
Well, the answer to that lies in cocktail history as well. As cocktails became more complex, many “improved” variations on existing recipes started to appear. One of these, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, came into vogue in the late 1800s. In order to differentiate between this newfangled elixir and the original, patrons who wanted a glass of bourbon, sugar, and bitters without all the fancy stuff would ask for an old fashioned whiskey cocktail. This was quickly shortened to simply an Old Fashioned, the name under which it’s been known for all the many decades since.
The key to a good Old Fashioned, in my less than humble opinion, is the orange zest. You want to get a good, healthy chunk of fresh orange peel, with as little pith as possible, and you want to muddle the hell out of it, expressing its essential oils. Whether you use sugar or simple syrup here is up to you (traditionalists like the slight grit that comes with the former), but the important thing is to mash that peel up good. If your Old Fashioned is clear, instead of murky, you haven’t muddled enough!
- 2.5 oz. Bourbon (Booker’s)
- .5 oz. Simple Syrup OR 1 Sugar Cube
- Heavy Dash Aromatic Bitters (Angostura)
- Orange Peel
Muddle the orange peel, sugar, and bitters at the bottom of a pint glass until the orange peel is thoroughly beat up. Add bourbon and ice, and stir thoroughly. Strain into a chilled rocks glass over a single large ice cube. Garnish with a fresh orange twist.
Note: the bourbon I’m recommending here is high octane – around 125 proof, or 62.5% ABV. That’s serious business. If you’re planning on drinking more than one of these guys, it’s a safer bet to go with something in the more common 42-45% range.
The Modern Old Fashioned
You might think this would be the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, but you’d be wrong. That’s its own separate drink (and one that fell largely into obscurity for the bulk of the 20th century). Instead, what I’m calling the Modern Old Fashioned is really just a variant on the original. At some point, someone decided that it might be interesting to muddle a half of an orange wheel and a maraschino cherry in with their sugar and bitters, and to top things off with a splash of club soda. The origins of this Old Fashioned variant are lost to history, but given the hold it has in the American South, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out it originated there.
Regardless of its origins, by the 1930s the muddled fruit variant had appeared, and by the 1940s this variant was the Old Fashioned of choice at many bars (people could and did order their Old Fashioneds “without fruit” if they wanted the original). This version has its charms, though in my personal opinion it really misses the point of the original, which lets the bourbon shine while augmenting it with just enough sweetness and flavor. Still, if you’re feeling like a change of pace, give the Modern Old Fashioned a shot. It’s a fruity, interesting take on the classic.
- 2.5 oz. Bourbon (Four Roses Small Batch)
- .25 oz. Simple Syrup OR 1 Sugar Cube
- Dash Aromatic Bitters (The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’s)
- Half an Orange Wheel
- One Maraschino Cherry (Luxardo)
- Club Soda
Muddle the orange, cherry, bitters, and sweetener in the bottom of a rocks glass. Add bourbon and ice cubes, and stir to combine. Top with a splash of soda and stir gently. No garnish.
Wisconsin Old Fashioned
This drink, you will quickly notice, is not an Old Fashioned. For one thing, there’s no whiskey in it. For another, it’s absolutely bursting with fruit, and features a “wash” of either lemon-lime soda or sour mix. So that’s … something.
This regional variant came about due to Wisconsin’s extremely large German immigrant population. The Germans, as it turns out, were fonder of brandy than of rough and tumble American whiskey. They also seem to have had quite a sweet tooth! I’m going to go on record now as being utterly anti-sour-mix. Use lemon lime soda (those who want a slightly drier drink go with club soda), or make your own sour with 50/50 fresh lemon juice and simple syrup, but please, I’m begging you, do not ever buy a pre-packaged bottle of sour mix. The “wash” in this case shouldn’t be more than a quarter of an ounce, although you can find bartenders in Wisconsin who’ll absolutely drown your Old Fashioned in soda, if that’s your thing.
When made correctly, using decent brandy and good soda (I like Fever Tree’s bitter lemon, but that’s not real traditional, so I’m recommending Sprite instead), this is not a bad drink. It’s got a lot of flavors that combine in a pretty solid manner, and the heavy hit of bitters helps take the edge off the sweetness. It’s definitely worth trying, and you might even find that it’s a welcome change of pace from the Old Fashioned’s whiskey-forward approach.
- 2 oz. Brandy (Korbel is common in Wisconsin. I like Camus VSOP)
- .25 oz. Simple Syrup OR 1 Sugar Cube
- 3 Dashes Aromatic Bitters (Angostura)
- 1-2 Half Orange Wheels
- 2 Maraschino Cherries (Luxardo)
- Wash Club or Lemon Lime Soda (Sprite)
Muddle sweetener, bitters, and fruit in a double rocks glass (note: don’t muddle like crazy here – there’s too much pith in the orange slices for that). Add brandy and ice and stir thoroughly. Top with soda wash and stir gently.
Items in parentheses are what I used when I made this recipe, and are included as suggestions.