Here’s the recipe found in George Kappeler’s 1895 cocktail book (and is almost exactly the Old Fashioned I prefer):
“Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail
Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass;
add two dashes Angostura bitters,
a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel,
one jigger whiskey.
Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass.”
See, a simplified balance of primary ingredients like this one was something very modern for its time: the Manhattan Club’s cocktail origin is traced back to 1874 and the martini probably originated in the latter decades of the nineteenth century too. The accepted standard of the Old Fashioned cocktail was earliest mentioned in print in 1880, which is only 15 years before its inclusion in the aforementioned bar recipe book. So why call it an Old Fashioned anyway?
I believe it is possible to chalk up the proliferation of the standard Old Fashioned to some creative liquor marketing. Let’s begin with an aside in The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book:
[The Old Fashioned] was brought to the Old Waldorf in the days of its “sit-down” Bar, and was introduced by, or in honor of, Col. James E. Pepper of Kentucky, proprietor of a celebrated whiskey of the period. It was said to have been the invention of a bartender at the famous Pendennis Club in Louisville, of which Col. Pepper was a member.”
The Colonel James E. Pepper was a third-generation whiskey distiller with a mission beyond the quenching of thirst. While Mr. Pepper’s granddaddy, Elijah Pepper, began distilling in Kentucky as far back at 1776 at Old Pepper Springs (back then it was part of a giant Bourbon “county” in the territory of Virginia), I suspect the family whiskey faced increasing competition by the time James took the helm in 1867; For example two young, notable upstarts of that decade included Jasper Newton “Jack” Daniel in middle Tennessee and the Ripy brothers in Tyrone, KY producing Wild Turkey.
Something had to be done. The Colonel began to position Old Pepper as something inseparable to American History. He even went as far to nickname James E. Pepper Whiskey “Old 1776.” I’ll quote directly from the fascinating James E. Pepper website:
“Old Pepper” bourbon becomes the favorite brand of noted Americans: including President Ulysses S. Grant, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, President Andrew Jackson, Vice President John C. Calhoun, President William Henry Harrison & statesman Daniel Webster.
President Abraham Lincoln once famously replied to some critics of Grant, “By the way, gentlemen, can either of you tell me where General Grant procures his whiskey? Because, if I can find out, I will send every general in the field a barrel of it !”
Just imagine James E. Pepper, a real Kentucky Colonel, traveling by private rail car to all points west and north to spin yarns and share a special recipe that used his family’s whiskey. He became a genteel southern brand ambassador who sold his liquor with an image, historical stories, and an ace cocktail that was probably about as old fashioned as the day it was invented. This business of crediting his bartender as the old-fashioned’s inventor was in fact a ruse: David Wondrich reveals in his mixology must-read, Imbibe!, that this cocktail was mentioned in the Chicago Tribune a full year before the Pendennis Club opened its doors in 1881. So while we may never know its origin, I believe we’ve found the colonel to thank for spreading the Old Fashioned across the land.
Note the history in the ad and the Old Fashioned next to the bottle; both still used to sell whiskey almost 40 years after Col. Pepper died
It was a powerful bit of branding and possibly the distinction that he needed; in 1879, Col. James Pepper moved his operation to a new distillery in Lexington, the world’s largest at the time. The company would continue to exist until 1958.
While once a simple mixture brilliant in its balance, the Old Fashioned became heavy and too sweet with ingredients like soda pop and fruit. A former king of cocktails with a sad tale of decline, and a bit to me like the king of rock ‘n’ roll: once brilliant enough to shake his hips on Ed Sullivan, only to inevitably become a bloated mess of sideburns, peanut butter and barbiturates. Just like Elvis, time left the Old Fashioned too soft to pull a punch and properly take care of business. Someone call Colonel Tom Parker!
Elvis in his later years, sagging under the weight of n’er-do-wells and gargantuan belt buckles
Jeffery Morgenthaler provides a link to the best recipe and advice I’ve literally ever seen for an Old Fashioned by Martin Doudoroff. It would be a waste to reproduce it here other than to say: 1. I prefer bourbon but rye would be fine; 2. Yes to ice; 3. He’s right on about the bitters; 4. I always use a slice of orange peel; and 5. HALLELUJAH brother nothing else belongs in an Old-Fashioned. Remember, ginger ale or mashed up fruit might taste great with bourbon, but it tastes great as a punch or something and not as a true Old Fashioned.
1 teaspoon sugar
a few dashes of barrel bitters- I prefer Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters for the cinnamon taste. Angostura is fine too.
good ice- If you can “taste” your water, buy a $1.00 bag of ice on your next grocery run. This is the most overlooked ingredient in a cocktail, and good, clean ice is essential here.
2 oz. bourbon or rye- A million choices. If you’re new to brown liquor, try something mid-range like a nice Bulleit Rye or Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. My gold standard would be Pritchard’s Double Barrel Bourbon. Tell Phil that I sent you!
1 twist orange peel- Just the rind, as big of a piece as you like.
Add the sugar to a rocks glass with a few healthy shakes of bitters. Combine with a tablespoon or so of cold water and swirl to completely dissolve the sugar. This should smell amazing. Add enough ice to chill the drink, but not so much as to overwhelm it. Add the bourbon and sit for a moment to chill. Stir with a spoon. Wring out the orange peel over the surface to release the citrus oils and add the peel to the drink.
The Old-Fashioned is a simple drink to make with a reward for following directions closely. The sugar unlocks the complexity of the bitters that linger on the tongue after a sip; the cold, cold whiskey is pronounced in flavor or spice without overwhelming or burning the mouth; and the citrus provides a nose that additionally smooths out the spirit.
I’d recommend an Old Fashioned to those interested in trying more whiskey and bourbon but are intimidated or unable to drink either neat or on ice. It may end up as your favorite; I can drink brown liquor any which way, but I still prefer this cocktail.
2. Museum of the American Cocktail
3. The Serious Eats Guide to Bourbon