The Old-Fashioned

A classic that can be destroyed, perfected, perverted. It can also reveal the depths of your character.

An old-fashioned.
An old-fashioned

Andrey Novikov/Thinkstock.

One cold morning many years ago, a grouchy old New Yorker cranked out a letter to the editor of the Times. Happens every day, I know, but listen: This was New Year’s Day in 1936, and this old timer—that’s how he signed the letter, “Old Timer”—unraveled a righteous jeremiad about the improper mixing of drinks. Writing three years after Repeal—and presumably typing through a hangover, with the hammers of an Underwood clacking at his temples—he surveyed the violence Prohibition had done to the martini, the Manhattan, and, foremost, the old-fashioned whiskey cocktail:

Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moistened a lump of sugar with Angostura bitters, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large nor too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink. In most places the price was 15 cents or two for quarter.

Nowadays the modern or ex-speakeasy bartender drops a spoonful of powdered sugar into a glass, adds a squirt of carbonic to aid dissolution, adds to that a dash or two of some kind of alleged bitters and a lump of ice, regardless of size. Then he proceeds to build up a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple and cherry, and himself pours in a carefully measured ounce and a half of bar whisky, usually a blend, and gives one a glass rod to stir it with. Price, 35 to 50 cents. Profanation and extortion.

In his grumping, Old Timer roughly described the two main approaches to this uniquely venerable beverage. The austere former—its liquor merely sweetened and seasoned, not even tarted up with a citrus twist—is hard-core originalist. The fancy latter points to the opposite extreme, where the bartender muddles a whole Carmen Miranda headdress and the squirt of carbonated water becomes a long spritz of Sprite.

The old-fashioned is at once “the manliest cocktail order” and “something your grandmother drank,” and between those poles we discover countless simple delights, evolutionary wonders, and captivating abominations. Because of its core simplicity and its elasticity—because it is primordial booze—ideas about the old-fashioned exist in a realm where gastronomical notions shade into ideological tenets. It is a platform for a bar to make a statement, a surface on which every bartender leaves a thumbprint, and a solution that many a picky drinker dips his litmus paper in. You are a free man. Drink your drink as you please. But know that your interpretation of the recipe says something serious about your philosophy of fun.

I like mine with rye. Matter of fact, I’m liking mine with rye while proofing this sentence. I’m sitting here with a fifth of Rittenhouse 100 and a stack of this fall’s cocktail books. I’ve been using the bottom of an old-fashioned glass as a lens to focus on the soul of each.

The oldest of the new books is Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide: 75th Anniversary Edition, which was edited by Jonathan Pogash with Rick Rodgers and draws on the efforts of many other esteemed barkeeps.1  In the beginning, the Guide existed to shill for Old Mr. Boston, a Massachusetts company that once sold a line of 148 liquors, including the finest mint-flavored gin, butterscotch schnapps, and premixed apricot sours ever distilled in the neighborhood of Roxbury. Now, the liquor brand is a shell of its former self, and the book is the closest thing we have to a standard wet-bar reference. It is, like Hoyle’s Rules of Games, Emily Post’s Etiquette, and Vātsyāyana’s Kama Sutra, a volume without which no home is truly complete.

The old-fashioned whiskey cocktail comes first among the book’s 1,500 recipes. A four-page discussion begins by connecting the old-fashioned with the first recorded definition of the cocktail in general—“a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”—which dates to 1806.2  “As the cocktail evolved, this earliest of cocktails became known simply as the Old-Fashioned,” the text explains. Before old-fashioned became popularly synonymous with a particular drink made with American whiskey, it described a general style. In keeping, the book later presents the rum old-fashioned and the tequila old-fashioned and more. There’s a “Bad-Humored Old-Fashioned” for fans of Dutch gin, a “Oaxaca Old-Fashioned” for mezcal enthusiasts, and a scotch old-fashioned for aficionados of fucking up perfectly good scotch. It only strays from the strictest definition of the term with the coffee old-fashioned, a sort of bourbon-java spritzer served cold. Though the coffee old-fashioned is passable as a hearty after-dinner diversion—and also suitable as an eye-opener for female characters in Bukowski novels—it might work best to fuel late nights of reviewing very dull legal documents. Back up front, handling the basics, Mr. Boston endorses a recipe from 1895 and presents a modern analog that calls for smooth simple syrup rather than grainy sugar.3

Then he anticipates a frequently asked question: “But what about the cherry and the orange?” Though the book, open-minded about the orange, suggests a few techniques of getting at its excellent essence,4  it approves of the cherry only as a garnish: “Muddling them into the drink does little to improve the flavor or the aesthetics.” Depends on your ideas of beauty. At my dive of choice, where they turn out an old-fashioned as a vermilion mess of blasted cherries, the drink is only interesting for its aesthetics. With its evocation of lipstick traces and its garish air of frilly dissipation, the thing is most plausible as an accessory for a young woman cultivating a bad-girl affect.

One of the persons responsible for maintaining Mr. Boston’s relevance in recent years is Jim Meehan, proprietor of the Manhattan bar PDT and now the author of The PDT Cocktail Book, illustrated with brawny suavity by Chris Gall. It is but one indication of Meehan’s stature that he admits the loathed cosmopolitan to these literary premises; many players on the craft-cocktail scene would hesitate to do so for fear of being abandoned by their tribe. The book’s 300-odd formulae include canonized classics and originals from Meehan’s hooch house, which range from models of delicious simplicity to total stunts like the “Cinema Highball,” a Cuba Libre made with buttered-popcorn-infused rum. The PDT Cocktail Book is a terrific resource for anyone running a chic bar, especially if that bar is PDT: Very many cocktail guides offer drawings of Champagne coupes and channel knives in their equipment sections. Meehan goes the further step of showing you his Kold-Draft GB1060 ice machine and diagramming its location in his basement.

There are three old-fashioned recipes here—a minimalist version from 1888, a “Newfangled” that tops its Old Grand-Dad with wheat beer, and the “Benton’s Old-Fashioned,” which relies on bacon fat-infused bourbon and Grade B maple syrup. This is PDT’s most popular drink, its most imitated, and the best exemplar of the house style. This was something I needed to sip, so I called ahead for a table.5 The wife put on her party shoes, and we rendezvoused with a friend at a hot-dog joint on St. Mark’s Place. I went into a phone booth, spun the “1” on the rotary dial, and a hostess opened a hidden door onto a narrow barroom. I placed my order with a pleasant young man wearing a bow tie and clip-on suspenders. Very shortly, the bacon-infused old-fashioned got all up in my face. It came on easy—smoky and rich but delicate. The wife observed that the clarity of the bourbon contrasted wonderfully with the drag of the sweet grease. I quickly decided that I wanted another, but not for years, probably, unless it were served alongside a plate of crispy Eggo Minis. The bacon fat lingered on the palate—loitered, even—on through the cab ride home.

Back on my couch, I dreamily re-read Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, written by Brad Thomas Parsons and enlivened by the appetite-whetting photography of Ed Anderson. Parsons tells you everything you ever wanted to know about his subject and tells it in a manner that may convince you that everything is not enough. “Bitters,” he writes, “are an aromatic flavoring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers, and botanicals in high-proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin).” They give balance, counter sweetness, cut richness … and most of the people who omit them from old-fashioneds are ignoramuses and fools.6 After offering a history of Angostura, a review of bitters’ origins as medicine, an overview of today’s bitters makers, and instructions for making your own, Parsons turns to recipes for 60-odd cocktails. The old-fashioned heads up his “Bitters Hall of Fame.” Characteristically, his tone is companionable, and his advice encourages R&D: “Just mix and match your bourbon or rye with different bitters, and the sugar can take the form of a flavored syrup. … I’m fond of putting an autumnal twist on the old-fashioned by using bourbon, cinnamon syrup, and apple bitters.”

Fab. I recommend Bitters to the Etsy set without reservation. But I also suggest studying it as evidence of certain problematic quirks in cultural consumption among a certain caste.7  On two occasions, Parsons mentions the most precious of all auteurs when introducing a recipe. In one such case, he invokes The Royal Tenenbaums when dedicating a fabulous interpretation of the Pimm’s Cup to two sisters who collect vintage knickknacks in their Williamsburg loft and blog about tweed and that sort of thing. Further, the author features a handful of drinks named with reference to good music, and he has paid special attention to the Matador back catalog. What sort of expression is one supposed to make, in lieu of a straight face, when asking for an “Exile in Ryeville”? It only seems possible to order one if you don’t even know who Liz Phair is. I see where things are going, and the destination makes me uneasy. Nonetheless, I call dibs on the following drink names: Arcade Firewater, the Cape Codder Kwassa Kwassa, and the Lykke Li Lychee Martini.

If Parsons’ indie-rock-on-the-rocks streak—with gin in his “Shady Lane” and rye in his “Autumn Sweater“— is a bit too much for you, then wait till you get a load of North Star Cocktails, credited to Johnny Michaels and the North Star Bartenders’ Guild, which is to say the most happening bartender in the Twin Cities and his happening bartender friends. In acquainting the reader with 125 drinks, the book namedrops The Smiths, The Cult, The Who, The Sex Pistols, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, Bauhaus, Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai, a Spanish electronic instrumentalist of whom you have never heard, J. Lo, and Spinal Tap. And if you think that is the playlist of a book that is exerting itself overly much, then wait till you get a load of the actual drinks.

The third recipe in the book demands 14 ingredients, one being a combination of grapeseed oil and Nu Silver Luster Dust. Forging ahead, the reader ponders urgent questions: Are they serious about the “platinum-grade leaf gelatin”? Am I some kind of hick for never having heard of mangosteen juice? “Habanero-butterscotch syrup”? Really?8 North Star Cocktails is published by an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which is either documenting a baroque local tradition of cuisine or preserving a record of tragic hipsterism as practiced in the Upper Midwest.

On the upside, this feverish pursuit of novelty leads to a quorum of nifty innovations, and North Star’s treatments of the old-fashioned strike a fine balance between classical rigor and extravagant whimsy. I count five of them—the “Fashionably Fashioned” (made with applejack, simple syrup, cinnamon tincture, and “cherry bark-vanilla bitters”), the “Of the Older Fashion” (bourbon, muscovado syrup, and a load of small-batch bitters), the “Bronko Nagurski” (rye, root-beer syrup, three kinds of bitters), the “Victoria” (Canadian whiskey, maple syrup, two kinds of bitters), and the potentially ludicrous “Breakfast in Vermont,” based on rye infused with oatmeal and vanilla. Michaels himself created the Victoria. “This is an old drink, one of the originals from the opening list at La Belle Vie,” he writes. “It seems so outdated now, but still simple and good.” Don’t fret, dude! Something so close to a true old-fashioned will never go out of date. Also, get some perspective: La Belle Vie opened in 2005.

Seeing from his author bio that Brian D. Murphy, the author of See Mix Drink, lives in Minneapolis, I had to wonder whether he’d ever sampled one of Johnny Michaels’ “conceptual drinks,” perhaps the deliberately gross “Agony of Defeat,” inspired by the Vikings’ overtime loss to the Saints in the 2009 AFC Championship game.9  But I did not wonder long. Murphy’s tastes are far less exotic, and we should welcome his book, subtitled A Refreshingly Simple Guide to Crafting the World’s Most Popular Cocktails, as a humble rebuttal to mixological excess.

“I became frustrated while trying to use conventional cocktail books,” Murphy writes in the introduction, “Like most people, I am a visual learner, yet most cocktail books on today’s shelves are laden with text-based recipes and wordy instructions. … It’s time for a cocktail book revolution.” There, at the ramparts, he uses an “innovative visual format” to spread the word about “the 100 most sought-after cocktails.” Imagine that the “Happy Hour Assemblies …” detail sheet knocked up a USA Today infographic and that their kid grew to be a user manual. Murphy devotes a two-page spread to each drink. The dominant illustration on each left-hand page is a vertical cross-section of a glass with liquors and mixers arranged in a kind of one-bar graph. Below, you see a color-coded row of the relevant bottles, fruits, and equipment. Opposite, you’ll find a brief description of this drink, a doughnut chart indicating percentages of ingredients, a calorie count in the doughnut chart’s hole, written and pictorial instructions, and a photo of the finished cocktail.

Proficiency in the English language may well be detrimental to the enjoyment of this book. The inclusion of the phonetic spelling of each drink—mahr-tee-nee, fuhz-ee ney-vuhl—reinforces the impression that See Mix Drink is best suited to the needs of an Ecuadorian barback suddenly thrust behind the stick or of a Maori ordering a sex on the beach at Frankfurt Airport. But I refuse to knock the book on that count because we all have different learning styles, yes, and because there are more important things to knock it for. Murphy seems to think that all whiskey is 80 proof, which is the kind of error that could get somebody hurt. He also believes that you’re supposed to stir a madras, which is the kind of error that could get somebody mocked pitilessly at the yacht club.

Murphy’s old-fashioned—ohld fashund—is 86 percent bourbon, 7 percent muddled orange, 5 percent sugar cube, and 2 percent Angostura bitters, standing as decent reflection of popular sentiments. This old-fashioned is made with just enough fruitiness to appeal to mass taste, just enough ritual to satisfy nostalgia, and just enough whiskey to start getting you drunk. But the most significant words about Murphy’s old-fashioned come in the publicity materials, which note that the author, “having been inspired to try it after watching Mad Men,”10  counts it as his favorite. The old-fashioned, in turn, inspired the book, thus serving as a love-philtre.

Vintage Cocktails: Retro Recipes for the Home Mixologist, written by Amanda Hallay, or perhaps drunkenly dictated by her, also advertises the old-fashioned’s connection to Mad Men: “Why it is the suave Don Draper’s favorite cocktail remains something of a mystery; this is a sweet, sweet drink. It is also incredibly labor-intensive.” Well, the way she adulterates it, sure it’s saccharine, duh, but still Hallay points us somewhere interesting: “If your wrist isn’t hurting and you don’t want to kill the person who asked for an old-fashioned, you have not muddled enough.” This is wrong and yet onto something—a peculiar labor theory of value. Surely some people derive pleasure from watching a bartender work at an old-fashioned. To them, the old-fashioned offers a richness unavailable from an effortless pour of whiskey neat.

Vintage Cocktails reads like a novelty item. Or a gag gift. It is loopy. It is unclear how “Everclear Punch” qualifies as “vintage.” (“You really shouldn’t drink this yourself,” Hallay writes. “Use it to get other people drunk.”) One drink memorializes the author’s recently dead tabby cat, named Matlock. You’re supposed to add the bourbon and Kahlua and Bailey’s and heavy cream in layers: “The drink will then look like the stripes on the fur of a much-missed moggy.”

To clear that taste from your mouth, try The American Cocktail. This one comes to us from the editors of Imbibe magazine, and it often combines the unpretentiousness of See Mix Drink, the swank adventurism of PDT, and the photographic beauty of Bitters. Subtitled 50 Recipes That Celebrate the Craft of Mixing Drinks From Coast to Coast, it gathers a “St. Louis Southside” and a “Boston Bog,” a “Copper Fox Cooler” from Virginia and a “Pig on the Porch” from South Carolina. From Louisiana, it collects the “Comfortably Old-Fashioned,” which uses Southern Comfort as its base. In its sweetness, this one’s on the grandmotherly end of the old-fashioned spectrum, but it has its charms—provoking nostalgia for one’s youth, for instance. Southern Comfort is, of course, a peachy whiskey-based liqueur especially popular among college students, who drink it in prelude to preposterous behavior centered on SEC football games, ACC basketball tournaments, and Ivy League sorority pledge nights.

Going the SoCo route, The American Cocktail goes counterintuitive. To discover the most amazing regional variation on the old-fashioned—a local drinking tradition with only one, far less exalted, peer11—we must look due north of New Orleans. The Wisconsin brandy old-fashioned is not just a refreshment but an institution, one tied up with supper-club relish trays and Friday-night fish fries, and it must taste best when sipped from a commemorative Packers tumbler. The brandy is preferably domestic and probably Korbel. The pull of soda is often sweet (with 7-Up) or so-called sour (with Squirt). People garnish these with cherries, olives, onions, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, pickled eggs. … Knowing that Jim Meehan started tending bar as a college student in Madison, I sent him a note requesting his thoughts on the matter. He said that, if enjoying some Badger State hospitality, he would order his brandy old-fashioned “press”—topped with equal parts 7-Up and club soda. “I’m always intrigued by those who order it with mushrooms. Perhaps not enough to order it though.”

Meehan ventures that the most remarkable thing about the phenomenon is “how well it demonstrates the modularity of the most iconic cocktail recipes.” I would add that the Wisconsin old-fashioned is glorious in its process even on occasions that the product is objectively vile. The tradition suggests that the careful mixing of any old-fashioned is a ceremony celebrating tradition itself. There is a school of thought, well attended, that says an old-fashioned is best made at home. But wherever it is made, it goes down with the sweetness of a homecoming if it is made to perfection, which must be determined by one’s own self. This is the seminal cocktail of a pluralistic nation.

1 Over the last three-quarters of a century, Mr. Boston has had face-lifts almost once a year, and this edition, the 68th, is the handsomest yet. The cover has deepened in color from the sickly maraschino of old to a shade somewhere between oxblood and classic Caulfield red; the beaver-hatted Mr. Boston icon, formerly depicting a blithe and bloated fellow, has become the streamlined profile of a sharp young dude. People who say you can’t judge a book by its cover don’t know how to read. The content inside the new Mr. Boston is, like the style of its outside, highly contemporary in a neo-retro way. The fellow is finally telling you how to make your own grenadine, just for instance. This edition ushers in more concoctions featuring fashionable amari and shrinks the azure pool of drinks that call for blue curaçao. (Return.)

2 On May 13, 1806, on the letters page of an upstate New York newspaper called The Balance, and Columbian Repository, a reader expressed confusion about a passing reference to “cock-tail” in the previous week’s edition: “I have heard of a forum, of phlegm-cutter and fog driver, of wetting the whistle, of moistening the clay, of a fillip, a spur in the head, quenching a spark in the throat, of flip &c, but never in my life, though have lived a good many years, did I hear of cock tail before. Is it peculiar to a part of this country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body?” The editor replied, “Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. It is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.” (Return.)

2 oz. rye or bourbon whiskey
¼ oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Garnish: Lemon twist
Pour rye or bourbon, syrup, and bitters into a cracked-ice-filled old-fashioned glass and stir. Add lemon twist. (Return.)

4 It happens that my researchers, diligent, led me to taste the fruits of some of these. At a smart whiskey bar, the guy employed a dozen little strips of peel. At a cozy lounge in a clamorous neighborhood, a fetching barmaid added two orange wheels to the muddling mix in her shaker and strained the potion over ice, achieving a vaguely Mediterranean effect. At an old-school steakhouse, a meaty bartender, who shook and stirred and added ice twice according to some ancient ritual, painstakingly built a painsgivingly large version with Crown Royal. Crucially, there was no pulp in any of these and thus none in my teeth (Return.)

5 Though reservations are not required at PDT, they are highly recommended. At 3 p.m. last Thursday, when the bar began booking tables for the evening, I called to get a table for four at 9 p.m. I got a busy signal and called back. I repeated this process 53 times. At 3:10, I reached a reservationist who offered our party of four a choice of a table at 7 p.m. or at midnight. I kicked one member of our party to the curb and booked a table for three at 9:30. It was annoying, but what else, short of posting a sentry at its portal, is a bar supposed to do when highly in demand and desirous of maintaining a civilized atmosphere? In any case, our stay was enriched, as indoor experiences in Manhattan so often are, by the knowledge that others were being actively excluded. (Return.)

6 This article is not especially interested in dispensing advice. I really don’t care what you drink or how you drink it so long as you do not spit it up on my shoes. But I must counsel that if you ever find yourself in a bar where it comes to light that there are no bitters on the premises—not even a bottle gathering dust and DNA evidence somewhere behind the Frangelico—then do not order any liquor in any form. The absence of bitters from a professional bar indicates genuine degeneracy. Stick to bottled beer and watch the bartender closely. (Return.)

7 Some experiences of urban sophistication leave a sensitive soul wanting to move to an ashram and fast on vegetable broth. Bitters isn’t one of those. Rather, it left me wanting to move to Tampa and go to Chili’s. Then the moment passed and I strolled over to Prime Meats, which serves the old-fashioned that Parsons, on his website, counts as his all-time favorite. Tasting the signature ingredient—pear bitters made from the fruit of the tree out back—I savored my own good taste. Noticing the straps across the bartender’s shoulders, I imagined, not for the first time, the moment a few years back when a downtrodden suspender manufacturer, fearful of bankruptcy, brightened upon getting a slew of orders in from the tin-ceilinged saloons of Brooklyn. Settling the bill, I wondered when I had started regarding a $10 drink as relatively cheap and whether there was any turning back. (Return.)

8 Why are they trying so hard? I want gently to suggest that Michaels and his posse are driven to such abstrusity by a kind of civic status anxiety. Historically, the most important U.S. cocktail cities are, in order, New Orleans, New York, Louisville, and San Francisco. Lately, the aggressive gourmands of the Pacific Northwest have been keeping the dream of the ‘90s—the 1890s—alive in Portland and Seattle. Now, I have no reason to believe that the beverages of Minneapolis and St. Paul are anything less than totally fine, but, well, they’ve had two whole cities to work with for a century and a half, and, well. … (Return.)

9 Ingredients include Bacardi 151, Laphroaig, and crème de banane. Michaels writes, “I wanted something so heinous that you would never forget it, much like the heartbreak of watching the Vikings lose. … The drink smelled like a wet, nasty ACE bandage.” (Return.)

10 The old-fashioned is Don Draper’s poison of choice and thus, in recent years, many young men thirsting to achieve his suave and sturdy facade have become acquainted with its pleasures and problems. Don prefers his with Canadian Club, but in the third episode of the third season, he hoisted himself over a country club bar, seized the Old Overholt, and whipped up a round to share with Conrad Hilton. Cocktail blogger Michael Dietsch has comprehensively detailed that recipe: “You won’t bother stirring the sugar into the drink, probably because you’ll be making out with someone else’s spouse by the time you’d reach the sugary sludge.” I would add that Don uses quite a healthy splash of soda water. Profanation? Perhaps. Unmanly? Maybe. But in this context what really counts is that the carbonation sped Don’s buzz along. As Johnny Michaels writes, “Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson once told me that if you want to get drunk fast, drink something hot or with bubbles. So I made him a hot drink with whiskey and sparkling cider. He wouldn’t drink it.” A Replacement refused alcohol?!?! Christ. (Return.)

11 Allen’s Coffee-Flavored Brandy, virtually unknown outside northern New England, is overwhelmingly the most popular liquor in Maine. In 2010, Downeasters bought 1.1 million liters of the stuff at home and—who could doubt it?—many tens of thousands more at the tax-free liquor outlets across the border in New Hampshire. This is in a state of 1.3 million people, a population including infants, teetotalers, and people with some class. (I wish I didn’t find it funny that the combination of Allen’s and Diet Moxie is called the “Welfare Mom.”) Allen’s is widely known as “the Champagne of Maine” and also, among defense attorneys, as “an ideal food for crime.” It has a flavor “reminiscent of the kind of coffee that you perk over a woodstove,” an oily body, and an acrid finish. That Mainers are able to put away so much of it is a great testament to the rugged New England character. (Return.)