Jane Ryan’s journey through the cocktail ages takes her to the Old Fashioned, an American drink the English had more than a small part in preserving, she says
In the oft-trashy but still loved Christmas classic Love Actually, Hugh Grant’s character rattles off a list of things that make the UK great. Shakespeare, Churchill, The Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter and both of David Beckham’s feet all get a mention. But he could have added another, which the Brits salvaged and preserved while their cousins across the pond ran riot with smashed fruit and all but ruined it. We’re talking about the Old Fashioned.
With little else to predate it, save an Atholl Brose, the Old Fashioned is one of the few primordial mixed drinks and fits snugly inside our very first definition of the word cocktail, handed down by The Balance & Columbian Repository’s editor Harry Croswell in 1806, who described it as “composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters...”
Stories abound of the Old Fashioned’s creation, with claimants lining up to be dubbed the genius who first poured whiskey over ice and added a little sugar and bitters. Loudest of these is Louisville’s Pendennis Club, but don’t believe it. Every claim ever staked can be debunked by an earlier reference, a story that doesn’t quite add up or a similar drink found at the same time in a different spot. The origin story is an evolution rather than an invention.
Originally called a Whiskey Cocktail, this drink was served up and considered an ‘eye-opener’ for those pre-breakfast glugs of booze so popular in the 1800s. But a lifetime of mixing spirit with water left the bartenders of the 1870s itching to experiment and into the Whiskey Cocktail they started to throw dashes of absinthe, curaçao and maraschino – anything new and readily available. The result was a cry shouted across many bars in America for “an old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail” left unadulterated.
Keeping it pure didn’t last long, however, as orange wedges, cherries and even pineapple chunks found themselves muddled in, possibly as a way to disguise foul-tasting homemade liquor. By the end of Prohibition, and found in the deluge of American cocktail books published in the 1930s, smashed fruit was firmly a part of the American recipe.
In the States the now altered Old Fashioned continued in popularity, often served with a spritz of soda water as well, until the 1970s when it all but disappeared, save from the Midwest, whose affiliation with the drink kept it alive.
That was America though. In the UK, and especially London, the Old Fashioned took a different turn, one which stayed true to its original recipe and turned it into a piece of theatre, minus the fruit salad. A theatre, by the way, that still confuses the hell out of a visiting American.
The sharp disparity between British and American Old Fashioneds was apparently discovered in 2002 by Dale DeGroff who, on a trip to London, found the bartending habit of adding in a third of the whiskey and ice at a time to control dilution confounding. This five to six minute ritual was, in his opinion, and in many others’ since, wasteful. “As an Old Fashioned drinker, I’d much rather have the dilution occur while I’m drinking it and taking sips, not at the bar. I want it to get better on my watch, not yours,” DeGroff is quoted as saying by Robert Simonson, journalist and author of The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail.
Origin of dilution
Where did this elaborate style of dilution come from though? As with most London-based origin stories it can be traced back, through the likes of LAB, to Dick Bradsell’s tenure at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, and beyond him to Ray Cooke who taught Bradsell at the Zanzibar club in the late ’70s, direct from the manual of David Embury. So while Americans may still call it “a preening time-waster”, many British drinkers believe the ritual results in a better drink. Regardless of that particular fact (what’s wrong with a little theatre anyway?), strict adherence to Embury’s recipe meant the drink avoided muddled pineapple and soda and was safely incubated in London until the world had shaken off the sour-mix ’80s and was ready to start enjoying well-prepared classics once more. You’re welcome.
These days the drink is, and has been for several years, the go-to cocktail for a younger generation who fixate on Negronis, Martinis and Old Fashioneds. Just 10 years ago it was commonplace for bartenders to warn female guests of its strength when they ordered one, but in that short space of time it’s become no longer confined to being heavy, moody or masculine. Now, whether a London bartender dilutes it for you or an American bartender allows that dilution to happen in your glass, it’s served closer to the 1806 definition than any 1970s abomination.
There are, of course, still small points of contention. Which bitters, or combination of bitters, are best? One single chunk or cubed ice to serve? Bourbon or rye? Orange zest or both lemon and orange? Sugar syrup or sugar cube? Maximising the effect of these moderators on the spirit is what sets a good Old Fashioned apart from the great ones.
Rye adds a savouriness that kills any lingering sweetness; bourbon, on the other hand, lends a butteriness that helps sink a nightcap. Demerara sugar brings a caramel note which other sugars lack, while making it into a 2:1 syrup speeds up the process. Angostura bitters bring spice, orange bitters add brightness, Abbotts and Boker’s work equally well, each bringing an enhancement to the table. In truth, for a three-ingredient cocktail, the room to deconstruct and perfect is wide and unexplored. Just take a look at Tom Macy’s recipe from Brooklyn’s Clover Club to prove the point. He’s been perfecting this recipe based on Wild Turkey for years.
CLOVER CLUB'S OLD FASHIONED
50ml rye whiskey, preferably Wild Turkey 101
1 teaspoon rich demerara syrup (2:1 demerara:water)
3 dashes bitter blend
Garnish: Orange and lemon peels
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass, add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with orange and lemon zests.
Bitters blend: 45ml Angostura bitters, 30ml Bitter Truth orange bitters 1 teaspoon Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas Decanter bitters