An Old-Fashioned Comment

My son-in-law, a bright and lovely fellow, also happens to be something of a cocktail nut, and one of the many pleasures of his company (rare as that may be for me, which may be a further indication of his good judgement) is our mutual talking about and showing-and-telling cocktails. This Christmas, a couple of books from him came my way.

Both books are written by Robert Simonson, who writes for The New York Times. Simonson is these days the Gray Lady’s cocktail reporter, basically. (In the writer bio in this book, he states, “His family doesn’t understand his job and worries about him. His friends do understand his job and wonder how he got it.”) The first of the two books by Simonson that I’d tackled is The Old-Fashioned, The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes & Lore. I half-suspected that the long-ish title was an effort to compensate for what is indeed a short-ish book, and I started in wondering just how padded the book would be, considering the constrained subject matter.

Well, I’m right, the book is padded, and I suspect that it may have been built up from a nice magazine article of his, but I’m not wasting any more time wondering. The Old-Fashioned is a good book, the writing is lively, and I got to learn a thing or three, with the main take-away possibly being that American newspapers and book publishers have been writing about cocktails right from the start. Simonson has many quotes, many from the mid-to-late-19th Century, from newspapers and bar books, mainly. The book is at heart a chronological record of the Old-Fashioned’s origins and evolution, with the final third of the pages presenting recipes for the drink and variants based on the drink’s structure.

The debate about The Old-Fashioned is lively these days, almost to the point of eye-rolling. Today’s purists will scorn any presence of fruit, probably in reaction to the practice during the 1960s-1980s of loading orange, cherry, pineapple, and a twist or two of lemon into what should be a simple drink, a form of Old-Fashioned now sneeringly referred to as “fruit salad.”  I often find myself among the sneerers, especially when the addition of club soda is automatic, not that I won’t add a splash or two at the direction of the guest.  I am pretty much an old-fashioned Old-Fashioned maker, but I hope that I’m not an oppressive fundamentalist.

The Old-Fashioned is a cocktail style that goes back to the beginnings of cocktail time, when “cocktail” meant liquor-bitters-sugar, and after the first wave of fancier drinks emerged following the introduction from Europe of certain liqueurs, fortified aromatic wines (e.g., vermouth), and complicated syrups, a backlash occurred in the form of drinkers asking for old-fashioned drinks, which is how the Old-Fashioned got its name.

The simplicity of this drink is, in my opinion, the strength of this drink, and here is how I put an Old-Fashioned together:


Bourbon (or Rye) whiskey, aromatic  bitters, sugar, half-orange slice, orange bitters.

Build in Old-Fashioned glass.

  1. One sugar lump or cube, with three-five dashes of aromatic bitters (Angostura Bitters) soaking the sugar.
  2. Half slice of orange, with the rind placed against the sugar, and through which the sugar gets crushed, using a muddler.  No energetic muddling, just release of the oils from the orange and expressing a bit of juice. Basically, lean on the carefully placed muddler, until sugar crushes.
  3. I love the Luxardo cherries, so I drop one in for garnish.  But no more muddling!
  4. Two ounces of American Straight Bourbon or Rye.
  5. Add ice—preferably one very large chunk.
  6. A couple of stirs with the bar spoon.
  7. Float a dash of orange bitters on top, add a couple short bar straws, and serve.

As the drink nears its consumption, there will still be some sugar in the bottom of the glass, and more or less depending on how much stirring the guest does. I describe the remaining sugar slag as “dessert,” to be pursued or ignored as wished.

The Old-Fashioned Extremists will have my head for the half-orange slice and the cherry, but the orange rind’s oil adds a terrific element to this drink, which I further build with the dash of orange bitters. On the other hand my rejection of club soda, pineapple, or simple syrup may stay the fundamentalist’s hand.  Here’s hoping.

Of course, a bartender who insists that he or she gets to decide how you want your drink is a bartender to avoid next time around, which is why I was so delighted to find Simonson discussing the Wisconsin Old-Fashioned, a variant a guest at a previous bar once walked me through.  Let me just mention the gingerale and the olives that were part of this variant, and leave it at that.

God bless variety, although, of course, the way I make an Old-Fashioned is best, all glory to the cocktail gods, amen.

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