Perhaps the oldest cocktail in the world is the Old Fashioned: a mix of sugar, fruit and liquor that dates back to the late 1800s and enjoyed prominence for more than half a century, taking a break for a few decades until it rose back to the limelight in the 21st century. The beauty of the Old Fashioned is its versatility. Drinkers can use just about any liquor as the base, though as a cocktail born in the United States, bourbon is the most common. Here’s what you’ll need for your own Old Fashioned:
2.5 ounces of your preferred liquor.
Where does the term “cocktail” come from? It’s a strange word for a mixed drink. An old word, to be specific. It predates Prohibition by over 100 years, emerging from the combination of two related bits of old American parlance. The spigot of an old liquor barrel used to be called a “cock” for the way the lever of the spigot had to be pulled in order to pour the liquor, similar to the way one “cocks” a gun before firing.
When taverns came to the bottom of the barrel, not having enough to pour a full drink, the remaining liquor was known as the “tail” of the cask. Thus, a “cocktail” was the result of mixing the dregs of multiple barrels. The term was adopted more widely during Prohibition because mixing liquor with other ingredients made the homemade products more palatable.
4-6 drops of bitters
1 pinch of sugar or ¼ ounce simple syrup
1 cherry, pitted
1 slice of fresh lemon
There’s some debate in mixology circles as to how to best mix an Old Fashioned. This is because it’s mechanically and chemically complex. Sugar is involved, which means we have to address that common adversary of the bartender: The inability of dry sugar to dissolve in cold liquid. Classic wisdom requires raw sugar to help in muddling (lightly crushing) the fruit, but that’s unnecessary. A good kitchen pestle will crush the cherry and lemon sufficiently, so you’re better off sticking to simple syrup (about a quarter ounce) for flavor. Place the fruit in the bottom of a wide, shallow glass, add the sugar or syrup, then lightly muddle it to release the juices and oils.
Add enough ice to fill half the glass, then pour your liquor. Whiskey provides the most, well, old-fashioned Old Fashioned. Bourbon will be slightly sweet, while rye or Canadian whiskey will be a bit more savory. There’s a gin variation, but considering the sugar and fruit, I’d recommend Old Tom style gin, a barrel-aged gin with a little more body and character compared to the botanical notes of London Dry gin.
Finally, finish the cocktail with a splash of Bitters. Angostura Bitters, a variety with an earthy, spicy character, is the classic finish, though peach or orange bitters can add a sweeter note to your drink. Some recipes also include a splash of soda water on top, but that’s entirely optional and many aficionados skip that step entirely.
As always, include fresh, local produce whenever possible. Washington State has some of the best cherries in the world and there’s a big difference between a bottled maraschino and a fresh Bing from the farmers market. With the right ingredients, the know-how and an eye for attention, you can enjoy the granddaddy of all cocktails in your own home.
Photo: Michael Sarko
Mix it up with more classic cocktails on The Local Dish: