Q. I love a good Old Fashioned, but different bartenders have made it several different ways over the years: with or without cherries, with orange and sometimes lemon. Everyone seems to have their own interpretation. What is your feeling on the proper way to serve an Old Fashioned?
A. There are two proper ways to make an Old Fashioned, and many interpretations. Let's start with a little history on the iconic cocktail. The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) cocktails in the world: The first mention of a "cock-tail" was in the Balance and Columbian Repository on May 6,1806, when a candidate who'd lost an election in Claverack, New York, satirically listed his losses and gains in the weekly:
Loss: 720 Rum Grogs 17 Brandy do. 32 gin slings 411 glasses bitters 25 do. cock-tail My election
Apparently, the candidate had been plying potential voters with alcohol, as was the custom of the day. The next week, a citizen wrote the editor of the paper with this lengthy question:
I observe in your paper of the 6th instant, in the account of a democratic candidate for a seat in the legislature, marked under the head of Loss, 25 do. cock-tail. Will you be so obliging as to inform me what is meant by this species of refreshment? Though a stranger to you, I believe, from your general character, you will not suppose this request to be impertinent.
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? Or does it signify that the democrats who take the potion are turned topsycurvy, and have their heads where their tails should be? I should think the latter to be the real solution; but am unwilling to determine finally until I receive all the information in my power...
The editor's answer was simple, and loaded with another swipe at the Democratic candidate:
...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...
Hilarious. So there we have it: Spirits of any kind, sugar, water (or soda) and bitters defines a cocktail. The potent potable could have been made with genever (gin), whiskey or brandy; the version that attained popularity contained rye whiskey, sugar, lemon peel, bitters and water. By the mid-1800s, there were many types of cocktails and if you wanted the benchmark drink you had to ask for an "Old Fashioned" cocktail.
By 1915 the Old Fashioned had morphed, and was generally made with rye or bourbon and an orange slice and maraschino cherry (real ones, not the bright red fake kind) had replaced the lemon peel. I prefer the cherry with bourbon and the orange slice with rye.
So there are two historically recognized versions of the Old Fashioned cocktail: My favorite, the Old-Old Fashioned (or Bittered Sling), and the New Old Fashioned. Both are terrific in their own right -- just be sure to specify when you order. Here are the two standard recipes: The Old-Old Fashioned or Bittered Sling
2 ounces Rye (Old Overholt) 3 dashes Angostura Bitters 1 tsp sugar 1 wide swath of Lemon peel Splash of water or soda
Muddle the sugar, bitters and lemon peel in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, add whiskey, stir to dissolve sugar. Add ice, stir and top with a splash of water or soda.
The New-Old Fashioned 2 ounces Bourbon (Buffalo Trace) 3 dashes Angostura Bitters 1 tsp sugar 1/2 orange wheel 2 Luxardo maraschino cherries Splash of water or soda
Muddle the sugar, bitters, orange and cherries in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, add whiskey, stir to dissolve sugar. Add ice, stir and top with a splash of water or soda.
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And here's my own Autumnal Old Fashioned variant called the "Fort Courage": The Fort Courage
2 ounces bourbon (Old Fitzgerald Bonded 100) 3 dashes Angostura Bitters .5oz simple syrup 3 drops of cinnamon tincture (extract is acceptable) 4 cranberries 1 wide swath of lemon peel Splash of water or soda
Muddle the simple syrup, bitters, cinnamon tincture, lemon peel and cranberries in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, add whiskey. Add ice, stir and top with a splash of water or soda.