Old Favourite: The Old Fashioned cocktail files

Naren Young

Naren Young

03 November 2015

In spite of some of the crimes committed against it down the years, the Old Fashioned remains one of the all-time greatest creations. Naren Young traces the history and development of a favourite of bartenders everywhere

Photos: Rob Lawson. Shot at Hawksmoor Spitalfields, drinks by Mark Bond. Glassware by Artis and photographer’s own 

The Old Fashioned once had serious street cred. That was a long time ago. In its original guise, it was simply known as the ‘Whiskey Cocktail’ – under the definition of a cocktail, made public in 1806 in The Balance and Columbian Repository, as ‘spirits of any kind, bitters, sugar and water’.

There was a Gin Cocktail, a Brandy Cocktail and so on and so forth. This was a simple and democratic libation of the highest order. At least it was back then, circa mid-19th century.

As tastes began to change – let’s blame Prohibition – the Old Fashioned became a sad reflection of its former self. Perhaps most responsible for this transformation was the introduction of muddled fruit and an overzealous slug of sugar syrup or what author Robert Simonson, drinks writer for The New York Times, witheringly calls ‘sacchariferous window dressing’ in The Old Fashioned, his new book solely dedicated to this august libation.

On some occasions this… um… cocktail would be shaken and then poured into the same glass. Some bartenders call this technique the ‘dirty pour’, and now you know why.

Banana Re-Fashioned
Naren Young, Dante

Glass: Rocks
Garnish: Dehydrated slice of banana
Method: Stir with ice and strain
over an ice sphere infused with white crème de cacao and chocolate bitters.
60ml banana-infused Buffalo Trace
5ml PX sherry
3 dashes chocolate bitters

To make the ice sphere: Per sphere, add 1bsp of white crème de cacao and 3 dashes of chocolate bitters to the water. Pour into sphere mould and freeze.

Many Whiskey Cocktail purists, probably (and understandably) a little disillusioned at where it all went wrong, started to ask for their Whiskey Cocktails made ‘the old fashioned way’. That translates into a drink without any sortof nonsense or frippery; just a delicious mix of whiskey, sugar and bitters, as it was originally intended.

When made well, an Old Fashioned is a thing of beauty; something truly sublime. When made badly, as it so often is, it just tastes of sadness and regret.

Simonson also laments the unfortunate demise of the Old Fashioned. ‘Once an austere, perfectly balanced assemblage of whiskey, bitters, sugar and water – a cocktail in its most elemental – it had taken on several decades worth of baggage. Citizens who came of drinking age around the turn of the new millennium would have been hard pressed to understand why intellectual leaders of the last century had taken time out of their day to signal praise for what seemed an exceedingly silly, unsophisticated drink.’

The modern cocktail renaissance that began to rear its head in the early 90s brought with it a generation of curious bartenders searching for authenticity and historical accuracy in their drinks.

The Old Fashioned was not immune to such scrutiny, and thankfully with the return of rye whiskey, bartenders could again make the drink as it might have been in the 19th century (though at that time, most bar keeps would have been rasping sugar from a large block known as ‘loaf sugar’, or using gum syrup, which was a much more viscous sugar syrup from the addition of a sap called gum arabic).

They were most likely using bitters with names like Abbott’s (once defunct but resurrected by the fine folks from Tempus Fugit Spirits) or Boker’s, whose lovely replica is now made in Scotland by entrepreneur Adam Elmegirab.

Jerry Thomas’ seminal book calls for something called Bogart’s bitters in his Whiskey Cocktail, which, according to Elmegirab, was actually a misprint of Boker’s. The Bitter Truth also pays respect to ‘Professor’ Thomas with its Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters, an admirable choice for any latter-day Old Fashioned.

And while clear, hand-carved ice is the latest trend in many of the world’s best bars nowadays, at that time it would have been the norm. Well – for those who could afford it. In America’s north east, large blocks would have been taken from frozen lakes in the winter, kept in ice houses all year and sold to bars throughout the region and beyond.

The earliest Whiskey Cocktails would actually have been served up, perhaps at room temperature, before iced drinks became the standard. As drinking became more leisurely and civilised – that is to say, they weren’t downed with abandon as they always had been – the Whiskey Cocktail and others of a similar ilk became more contemplative, sipping drinks. These were libations to be savoured slowly.

So where did it all begin?

Murky origins
The most common story surrounding the origins of the Old Fashioned is that of the Pendennis Club in Louisville, where the drink was supposedly made for a certain Colonel James E Pepper and created by an unidentified bartender from the club.

Improved Holland Cocktail

Glass: Old Fashioned
Garnish: Orange twist
Method: Stir with ice. Strain over fresh ice.
60ml Bols Genever
10ml simple syrup
1bsp absinthe
3 dashes orange bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Tokyo Old Fashioned
Jimmy Barrat, Zuma, Dubai

Glass: Old Fashioned
Garnish: None
Method: Stir with ice and strain over an ice sphere embossed with the Zuma logo.
40ml Elijah Craig 12 Year Old
15ml umeshu plum wine
15ml St-Germain liqueur
5ml Martini Rosso

I’ve seen this reference on far too many cocktail menus around the world, and while the club continues to profess that the drink did start its life at this institution, none of it has ever been substantiated with facts.

Truth be told, no one knows for sure who stirred the first Old Fashioned, though it should be noted that it was first mentioned in 1888 in Bartenders’ Manual written by a Theodore Proulx.

In the twilight years of Prohibition, Albert Stevens Crockett wrote Old Waldorf Bar Days, referencing the Pendennis Club as the home of the drink. Even though the Pendennis promotes the drink with the superfluous orange, lemon and a cherry, Crockett’s recipe in his book does not…

Fast forward to the new millennium and the Old Fashioned had become the bartender’s drink, a secret handshake much like the Negroni has been over the last couple of years. Sure, some customers were ordering it but it was the bartenders of London who were showing it due respect and bestowing its virtues on an ever-increasing demographic of savvy guests. It had made its way back into public favour and they were better and more creative than ever.

‘By the end of 2009 or so,’ Simonson continues, ‘the Old Fashioned had taken pride of place atop menus at not only the best cocktail bars in the United States, but also restaurants and hotel bars.

‘At many, it became what it had not been in an age: the bar’s top-selling drink. And your mother or grandmother was no longer the one ordering it. You were. It was indeed, a member of the cocktail trinity.’

Caramel Corn Old Fashioned
Simon McGoram, Neighbourhood, Sydney
(also pictured top)

Glass: Old Fashioned
Garnish: Mini basket of caramel popcorn
Method: Stir with ice. Strain onto a big lump of ice.
50ml buttered popcorn Bulleit bourbon*
15ml salted caramel syrup
10ml Talisker 10yo
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters

*To make the bourbon: Place 40g of freshly popped unsalted popcorn in a large sealable container. Pour a whole 700ml bottle of Bulleit over it and seal. Allow to infuse for two hours. Strain out the corn, squeezing the corn through muslin to extract soaked whiskey. Add 75ml of clarified unsalted butter. Cover and allow to infuse for two to three hours. Place vessel in the freezer until butter solidifies. Remove butter and strain through coffee filter paper into a bottle. Store in the fridge or freezer before use to retain flavour of infusion.


Like any of the great classic cocktails, the Old Fashioned is not impervious to debate. For a drink with only three ingredients that seems fairly simple to make, there are myriad ways it can be constructed. It all starts with the base spirit and that typically means a good whiskey. I prefer using a higher proof whiskey as it continues to make its presence felt as the drink keeps on diluting. I often reach for the likes of Knob Creek, Old Weller Antique, Booker’s, Old Grandad, Baker’s, Wild Turkey 101, Rare Breed or Rittenhouse.

To achieve the most sublime balance, the Old Fashioned, in my opinion, should be stirred over ice and strained on fresh ice. If you have those clear large ice cubes or spheres, even better. Without this step, the drink never tastes right upon first sip.

I have never understood London's bar keeps taking several minutes to make what is actually a very simple drink

Not everyone agrees and many bartenders choose to stir the drink over a large piece of ice directly in the glass. Erik Adkins, who runs Hard Water in San Francisco, is a proponent of making the drink in the glass in which it is served. ‘We make a lot of Old Fashioneds, but we go with the original name Whiskey Cocktail,’ says Adkins. ‘It confuses some people, but we like it. I know that lemon peel is traditional but I have always liked it better with orange peel. I also know that some esteemed bartenders prefer theirs stirred to dilution and then served on hand-cut ice but I am not convinced. I like mine a little boozier.

My first forays into this cocktail were learnt from recipes taken from some rudimentary drinks manuals my mother bought me in my teens. I was also guilty of committing crimes against the Old Fashioned, muddling the orange and those awful glacé cherries. I didn’t, however, shake the drink (seriously, people do this) or top it with lemonade like they do in Wisconsin.

I found the righteous path while working briefly at London’s late Match Bar for Jonathan Downey. This is a man who takes his drinks, and especially the Old Fashioned, very seriously. I clearly remember him sending back the first one I made for him, calling it ‘rubbish’.

London pace
I never understood the practice of London’s bar keeps of taking several minutes to make what is essentially a very simple drink. When I recently met with Downey, I asked him about this. He pointed to Dick Bradsell as the culprit. This London icon didn’t, Downey says, do it on purpose. He simply did it while he was chatting with guests at the bar, perhaps getting carried away in conversation as he lovingly prepared their drink.

In time, many young bartenders took this method as gospel and the rest is unnecessary history. It shouldn’t take more than a minute to knock one up.

I first learnt to make a proper Old Fashioned during my time at the Pegu Club in New York. The owner, Audrey Saunders, made it all seem so easy. Our house recipe was two barspoons of simple syrup, a couple of dashes of Angostura and 60ml of rye. I’m also partial to Dale DeGroff’s pimento bitters, Adam Elmegirab’s Boker’s bitters or the chocolate version from The Bitter Truth.

A swathe of orange peel completes the picture, though I’m not averse to lemon (or both) as many bars prefer. Since that epiphany years ago, this is how I continue to make it, though I do also like using a richer sweetener such as demarara sugar in syrup form, especially when the mercury drops.

CASE STUDY: The Raines Law Room at the William, New York City

The Raines Law Room is a tiny jewel box of a room – another in a long line of pseudo speakeasies that now dot the Manhattan landscape – where one can enjoy a finely crafted beverage from a lovely compendium of drinks curated by Meaghan Dorman. The original space in Chelsea now has a big brother in Midtown’s William Hotel and one of the highlights is their homage to the Old Fashioned.

The menu encourages you to ‘choose your own adventure’, meaning picking your base spirit, out of a 15-strong selection. This could be something obvious such as Elijah Craig or Buffalo Trace bourbons, or Rittenhouse Rye; or something a little more unusual to most – Nikka Coffey Grain, Laird’s apple brandy, Pierre Ferrand cognac, Siete Leguas reposado, Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal or the delightful Spice Tree expression from Compass Box.

It was the latter I chose to pair with their house-made ginger-spiked honey, though I could have also had a sugar cube, demarara, agave, orgeat, regular honey syrup or PX sherry. To round it out, baked apple bitters seemed like a fitting combination on this particular occasion. Just in case, there is also orange, Peychaud’s, tiki, chocolate mole and of course Angostura bitters to choose from.

The first sip was a little strong for my liking, the result of the drink being stirred directly in the glass and not for long enough. As it began to chill down and dilute after several minutes, the nuances in the scotch started to shine through and the drink became much more agreeable. If you find yourself in Manhattan’s Midtown, then this is one of the best places to enjoy a well-made drink.

24 East 39th St, New York City; raineslawroom.com

Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail – Dante, New York City

For our winter menu at Dante, my new bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, I wanted to use some of the techniques I’ve learnt in the kitchen and re-imagine the Old Fashioned, while also paying homage to the drink with its proper name. First I toast some chopped chestnuts in a pan (you could also use pecans, almonds or hazelnuts) and then add a little unsalted butter until melted and just beginning to brown.

This goes into a glass container with a bottle of Woodford Reserve Rye to fat wash the whiskey. It is placed in the fridge overnight, after which the fat rises to the top and solidifies. I strain this through cheesecloth to remove the solids. What remains is a silky, buttery spirit with just a slight hint of nuttiness. This is done not so much to add flavour but rather texture.

This is then stirred with chestnut honey and a couple of dashes of Dale DeGroff’s pimento bitters and then strained over a single large cube of ice that has been smoked (I twice-smoke water using a smoking gun and pour this into rubber ice moulds). The drink is finished by spraying some of the bitters on top, which adds an ethereal whiff of clove and allspice.

I also use the sous vide method to infuse flavours into spirits quickly and consistently. This is a technique typically used by chefs to cook proteins but it has been embraced by many creative bartenders who have access to this equipment. Instead of infusing, say, fresh banana (see the Banana Re-Fashioned recipe) over a period of several days or a week to extract the most flavour, this can be done
in a matter of minutes by using this method.

79-81 Macdougal Street, New York City; 001212 982 5275; dante-nyc.com

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