The classic "old fashioned" is the simplest of cocktails--sugar, bitters, and whiskey, stirred over ice, then served on the rocks with a citrus rind--and also, possibly, the best.
Thanks to the federal government, we almost lost it forever.
Different bartenders may take slightly varying approaches to the drink, but when executed well, the effect is the same: The recipe turns merely tolerable whiskey into something nuanced and delicious, adding complexity and character while smoothing over harsh edges. With good whiskey, it's a showcase for subtleties and strengths, taking a quality foundation and transforming it into something truly sublime. It is a perfectly proportioned balance of bitter, sweet, and strong--a spotlight and a stage on which liquor is the star.
Among its virtues is that it can easily be made at home. I use a rich, brown Demerara syrup, two different brands of aromatic bitters, and a spicy, oaky bourbon like Buffalo Trace or Eagle Rare. After a day of staring at a computer screen, the process of measuring, pouring, and then stirring--with a long spoon, the bowl turned inward so as to circulate the ice but not agitate it--is calming, forcing focus on what's to come. Making an old fashioned is, in a way, as enjoyable as drinking it. It was, and is, the ideal cocktail.
It is also the ideal of a cocktail. "There are a lot of people who view the old fashioned as not exactly a drink, but as an idea, kind of a blueprint," says Robert Simonson, a writer whose 2014 book Old Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail traces its history and origins. The old fashioned is the original cocktail. Throughout much of the 19th century, the word cocktail referred exclusively to early versions of the drink. It's the insight on which the entire canon of cocktails, from the Manhattan to the martini to the Sazerac to the daiquiri, is built. Embedded within its recipe are the specs for nearly every famous cocktail that followed: a careful balance of flavors, designed to showcase the most appealing qualities of its spirit base interacting with other ingredients.
In the years before 1920, the drink, which had evolved from an earlier iceless form beginning in the mid-1800s, would have looked more or less like the one described above, with aromatic bitters and perhaps a single cherry. When prepared by a serious bartender at a serious bar, the drinks were consistent and precise, with proportions carefully tweaked and measured. Often, they were accompanied by a tiny silver spoon.
But during the next 14 years, the cocktail underwent a radical transformation.
The spoon disappeared. A splash of carbonated water was added to the top, or the bottom, or both. The fruit garnish took over the drink, with handfuls of candied cherries stuffed into the glass and giant slices of orange pounded into the sugar, creating a juicy, sweet, busy concoction more like a whiskey-soaked fruit salad than a classic cocktail. The carefully measured proportions became careless pours. Instead of a precision-crafted spirit feature, the drink had become a muddled mess--a sloppy and indifferent concoction designed to disguise whiskey rather than show it off.
And for the most part, that was the way it stayed for decades, with few American drinkers knowing what they had lost.
What happened between 1920 and 1934? Prohibition. With a few exceptions, the federal government banned the sale, production, and shipment of alcohol. Bars were closed. Distilleries were shut down. What drinking remained went underground.
When Americans came to their senses, passing the 21st Amendment and repealing the nationwide booze ban, drinkers bellied up to bars and asked for one of the few cocktails they remembered: an old fashioned. What they got would have been unrecognizable 20 years prior.
"When you get to 1934," says Simonson, "it's just, bam! The old fashioned is this fruited thing. And that's the way it is everywhere." The new drink--and it was, essentially, a different drink--had become "a glass of punch. It didn't look like it had before Prohibition."
Although no one knows the precise reasons the drink changed the way it did, Simonson speculates that in the chaos following Prohibition, the recipe may have been confused with another drink, or that bartenders piled on fruit and soda in order to conceal the low quality of the liquor that was available at the time. Whatever the reason, the change was sudden and universal.
It wasn't just the old fashioned that, emerged degraded and destroyed. It was the whole of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture--the knowledge, skills, craft, and supply that for decades had informed one of America's original culinary arts, and even the essential idea of the cocktail itself. In the space of a generation, the entire country went from inventing the cocktail as we know it to forgetting how to make a decent drink.
A GREAT WAY TO START THE DAY
IN THE CENTURY before Prohibition, cocktail creation--otherwise known as bartending--was an art and an industry, part entertainment, part craft, part rebellious social signifier.
When the first iterations of American cocktails appeared in the early 1800s, they were a fixture of male counter-culture. "Cocktails were in the realm of sporting men," Ted Haigh writes in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, "and by sporting men I mean gamblers, hustlers, and proteges of loose women." They were frequently spiked with bitters, which were originally considered medicinal, and they were consumed in the morning in order to help ease the pain of the previous evening's drink. In other words, they were eye openers and hangover cures, designed to go down easy after a hard night out while setting up the day's activities.
Even the easygoing morning drinks of the 19th century were stiff creations built around strong liquor. Take the "morning glory fizz," which involved two ounces of scotch, several dashes of absinthe, and a mixture of sugar, egg white, and citrus juice, chilled over ice. The drink, reproduced from an 1882 bartending manual by cocktail historian David Wondrich in his 2007 book Imbibe!, was originally described as "an excellent one for a morning beverage, which will give a good appetite and quiet the nerves." A few, taken in rapid succession, might end the day before it began.
Cocktails quickly developed a reputation as drinks for scoundrels and men of low character. Almost as soon as American bartenders began making cocktails, social agitators began protesting them as a blight on the national character. In 1842, after the temperance advocate Charles Jewett visited a bar with a long list of topically named drinks, he accused bartender Peter Brigham of "destroy [ing] the peace of families, the hopes of parents, the health and lives of your fellow citizens, and the souls of men." According to Wondrich, whose book recounts the episode, Brigham responded by developing a drink called the "moral suasion," named for the argumentative approach that early temperance advocates hoped would turn men of good conscience against drink. The technique didn't work, but the drink apparently did: It was quickly put on menus across the country. (Sadly, the original recipe has since been lost.)
Pre-Prohibition bartenders, in other words, were a clever, cantankerous bunch: They responded to the temperance crowd in part through their continued existence and in part through their menus. (Another creation, "the fiscal agent," also became popular.) So began a long liquid conversation between those who purveyed alcohol and those who would restrict it.
But they had more to offer than snarky drink names. The bartenders of the 19th and early 20th centuries were innovators, artists, and entertainers. They were celebrities and community pillars who used the tools of their time to create a culinary experience that was new in the world. The story of American drinking culture before Prohibition is a story of technology, branding, and market innovations.
The most important of these innovations was ice, which became widely available starting in the 1830s. The earliest cocktails were just room-temperature mixes of alcohol and other ingredients. But ice, which had previously been available only to the rich and privileged, turned cocktails into a cool, affordable luxury. It helped chill the drink--important during hot summer days decades before air conditioning or refrigeration--but was also an ingredient unto...