“What’s in an Old Fashioned again?” In all seriousness, that question is probably asked more often than any other question at the bar. It’s really no surprise that there is an air of mystery around the drink. If you watch your bartender closely, you’ll undoubtably see him or her mix some strange combination of dark liquids and ice into what looks like a beautiful crystal mason jar. Watch closer and you can appreciate the way they effortlessly stir and strain the potion into a stumpy glass that looks like it was just rush delivered from the north pole. Next thing you know they’re mixing ten at once for the nice group that just saddled up at the bar next to you. This is the point when you just have to ask: “What’s in an Old Fashioned again?”

The reason that I’m conveying this common story is because an Old Fashioned is really quite a simple drink to make. It is easy to make it well and it is easy to make a lot of them. But to really appreciate the simplicity of the drink, it is important to take a step back and hear the story of why an Old Fashioned Cocktail is called an Old Fashioned.

Way back in 1806 (only 30 years after the birth of the county) if you walked into a bar and ordered a “cocktail” you would probably get a heavily potent mixture of spirit, sugar, bitters, and water. Back when the line between medicine and cuisine was a lot more blurry, a cocktail basically combined sugar and bitters to better flavor a presumably not so great tasting whiskey. This was all watered down (I hope with ice) to dilute the mixture and make the whole thing much more palatable.

Fast forward about 60 years to the Civil War era when mixed drinks were heavily in fashion (see how I used that word again?) Mixed drinks were so popular at the time that most cocktail historians consider the second half of the 19th century to be the “Golden Era” of cocktails. It was the time when cocktails did not just become a common way to consume alcohol but bartenders were becoming more and more creative about the drinks that they were creating. With all kinds of sweet, citrusy and flaming cocktails hitting the scene, what was an old codger to do if he wanted the kind of drink he had in his youth? He would order a “cocktail in the old fashioned style.” This would signal to the bartender that his patron wants some combination of exactly that: spirit, sugar, bitters, and water. As time went on the drink came to be known colloquially as an Old Fashioned and the word “cocktail” came to be known as a catch all for any alcoholic libation made up of several different ingredients.

While an Old Fashioned is typically made with rye, it definitely doesn’t need to be. I have had the pleasure of tasting many a rum, mezcal, or brandy old fashioned to name a few. You can also use any bitter for it but most old fashioned cocktails you’ll run into are probably made with an aromatic bitter and maybe an orange bitter depending on which state, city, or bar you’re in.

The recipe below is a relatively standard old fashioned recipe. I prefer not to muddle a sugar cube (or anything else for that matter) because I like my old fashioned to be completely smooth without little bits of sugar floating around. Using a 2:1 simple syrup will give your old fashioned a lot more consistency and control over levels of sweetness. Now that you know “what’s in an old fashioned” keep an eye out; there are endless variations on the theme, many of which are exceptional cocktails in their own right.

Rye Old Fashioned

2 oz Rye

.25 oz 2:1 simple syrup

4 droppers of aromatic bitters (Exorcism)

Combine in a mixing pitcher with ice

Stir and strain into a rocks glass with ice

Garnish with an orange zest

Toronto Cocktail

2 oz Rye

.25 oz Fernet

.25 oz 2:1 simple syrup

4 droppers of aromatic bitters (Exorcism)

Combine in a mixing pitcher with ice

Peel an entire lemon and spritz the oil into a chilled rocks glass

Stir cocktail and strain into spritzed and chilled glass

Improved Cocktail

2 oz Bourbon

.25 oz Maraschino Liqueur

.25 oz simple syrup

2 dashes aromatic bitters (Exorcism)

1 dash Absinthe

Combine in a mixing pitcher with ice

Peel an entire lemon and spritz the oil into a chilled rocks glass

Stir cocktail and strain into spritzed and chilled glass

A note on stirring:

It is much better for the drink be mixed with very cold ice in whole cubes than ice from the grocery store that has been sitting out.

Stir the drink until the ice just starts to melt. There is a point when the ice goes from being jagged and slightly resistant to when stirring feels effortless and consistency of the mixture is a bit velvety. This might take around 30 seconds.

For more information of on how to make this cocktail visit the post on Operating the Home Bar.

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