The Old Fashioned is being given a makeover, catering to demands for lower-abv and culinary cocktails. Tyler Zielinski looks at some of the twists that are available.
Throughout cocktail history, the Old Fashioned has manifested in many forms. It started as the Whiskey Cocktail (spirit, sugar, water and bitters) in the early-to-mid 1800s, initially served up eschewing ice before it became a commodity. By the 1870s, American imbibers and creative mixologists began dashing newly imported liqueurs and modifiers, such as curaçao and maraschino liqueur, into their whiskey cocktails, dubbing them “improved” (thus birthing the “old fashioned” whiskey cocktail); and by the 1930s, the layered Vieux Carré had come into play, marrying the components found in an “improved” whiskey cocktail with sweet vermouth, typically employed in the Manhattan, Martinez and the like.
After 200 years and 50 shades of the Old Fashioned, it has persevered and still reigns as one of the most popular off-menu orders at bars. But recently, at the world’s best bars, the time-tested formula has been reinvented more drastically than ever before as the confluence of low-abv, drinkable and culinary-driven cocktails define modern drink trends. The result is a New Fashioned cocktail that’s grounded in the Old Fashioned template, but modified with a freshness and acidity that makes the traditionally spirit-forward classic appealing to a wider audience.
“This new style of Old Fashioned is here to stay and is becoming a go-to twist on the classic recipe,” says Yann Bouvignies, head of mixology at Scarfes Bar. “Adding a touch of acidity in an Old Fashioned as the modifier makes the cocktail slightly more approachable and balanced, which is perfect for people who are not Old Fashioned drinkers.” Bartenders have been tinkering with types of acidity (think ferments, cordials, clarified fruit juices) in cocktails for years. But Old Fashioned-style drinks were rarely the application for a dose of freshness as alternative acids have more commonly been mixed in sours, long drinks and even Martinis ahead of dark and boozy cocktails. That’s finally begun to change at scale.
So fresh, so clean
In London, Silverleaf’s Class Bar Awards-nominated Pineapple | Miso cocktail is the epitome of the New Fashioned style. In the drink, 13-year-old whisky, brown butter-washed bourbon, pineapple and miso caramel, and pineapple oleo combine to form a cocktail with a richness reminiscent of the classic Old Fashioned, but the freshness of a Highball (seriously). The pop of acidity lent by the acidulated pineapple components means the drink looks and tastes like a spirit-forward cocktail, but putting back three in one sitting wouldn’t be unheard of – and it hurts a lot less than guzzling three classic Old Fashioneds. In fact, this scenario alone is one of the New Fashioned’s main draws: guests tend to drink and spend more at the bar, instead of slowly sipping on one drink during their visit.
At Scarfes Bar, Bouvignies and his team also leaned into the acidified Old Fashioned format with the Happy Mistake – an elegantly balanced and peculiar blend of tequila, palo cortado sherry, clarified white chocolate and rhubarb. “The original idea behind this drink was to combine rhubarb and white chocolate,” Bouvignies explains. “But while experimenting I mistakenly poured the white chocolate and rhubarb shrub into the mixing glass at the wrong time, which led to the curdling of the chocolate once it mixed with the acidic shrub.
“This clarification process was not expected, however once it was finely strained, the drink was born.”
Clarification is a hallmark trait of most avant-garde cocktails — many of which are clarified the lo-fi way by curdling milk with acid (aka milk washing). For the classic cocktail faithful, this hot take may seem like a stretch, but if you strip back the lactic roundness and softened flavour profile of a milk punch, you get a cocktail that often contains similar components to an acidified Old Fashioned. For bars without hi-tech equipment such as a rotary evaporator or centrifuge to efficiently clarify ingredients, milk washing has become commonplace. It’s an effective way to subtly introduce guests to a lower-abv drink structured like an Old Fashioned, but one that’s easier to drink. In a roundabout way, the milk punch almost serves as a gateway cocktail to more spirit-forward drinks like a classic Old Fashioned.
“[At The Dead Rabbit] we’ve recently added a drink in this style to our menu called the Jamestown Road, which is lighter in proof than a typical old fashioned, but gives the robust, rich characteristics of the classic,” says Aidan Bowie, beverage director at The Dead Rabbit. “It’s a milk punch using hazelnut milk, cacao husk, brioche, Hooghoudt genever and a splash of Bushmills 16 year…[and it’s served] alongside a piece of hazelnut brittle.”
The Jamestown Road’s luscious texture and mouthfeel, and relatively low abv, enhances drinkability and softens the bold flavours still present within the drink, but is presented in a way that looks similar to an Old Fashioned.
New Fashioned tekkers
The ways to liven up an Old Fashioned and find balance in its novel format, as exhibited by the aforementioned bars, are virtually endless. “Old Fashioned structures are very versatile,” says Lorenzo Antinori, co-founder of the newly opened Bar Leone. “It allows us to be creative and introduce fun new flavours, while still maintaining the classic’s DNA.”
Antinori recommends embracing the Mr Potato Head approach, swapping one ingredient in the classic template for another that’s similar in profile to maintain balance, yet different to add complexity. “One place to start is by splitting the base spirit where one component could be a lower abv (eg, sherry, aromatised wine), and combine dashes of vinegars along with more standard bitters to brighten up the cocktail.”
At Scarfes Bar, Bouvignies takes a more flavour-led approach. “We never use a specific template as we like to experiment and develop each drink with a new approach,” he says. “I personally love using sherry; a classic Old Fashioned would call for a good 50-60ml of spirit, but in a New Fashioned-style drink I like to reduce that to 40 or 45ml and bring some depth to the drink with some oloroso sherry for example.” Bouvignies also encourages bartenders to try a touch of vermouth, or a home-made cordial that focuses on a specific flavour to add complexity.
Regardless of the approach, the New Fashioned is proving a force to be reckoned with as it pops up on bar menus everywhere from Asia and the Americas to Europe. Where the reinvigorated cocktail’s boundaries lie are uncertain, but as far as Antinori is concerned “the sky is the limit”.