This story originally appeared on the Gents Cafe Newsletter. You can subscribe here.
Despite having been around for almost two centuries, the Old-Fashioned is repeatedly named the world’s most popular cocktail. No mean feat when you’re battling against the cult following of the Negroni and the revival of forgotten classics like the Aviation.
When the first documented use of the word ‘cocktail’ was used in around 1806, it was described as a concoction of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters (sound familiar?). As the 19th century progressed and drinks became more complex, there were those of a nostalgic nature that longed for simpler times and cried out for an old-fashioned cocktail.
Since the 19th Century the Old-Fashioned has gained so much popularity that now, contrary to why it was popular in the first place, it has become increasingly complex. Every bar seems to offer its own variation on the drink, with burnt orange peel, fat-washing bourbon, or tropical combinations involving coconut. I appreciate a good Old-Fashioned variant as much as the next man, but even I can admit that many of these stray so far from their muse that they are no longer recognizable.
In its purest form, the Old-Fashioned should consist only of sugar and bitters muddled together, combined with good quality Bourbon Whiskey stirred with ice and served over a large ice cube with an orange peel, leave the maraschino cherry for a Manhattan. To borrow an American expression if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
But what is it about the Old-Fashioned that keeps it so…in fashion, while so many of its relatives have been forgotten? Say the words Vieux Carré for example and the best response you might get, if you’re lucky, would be “isn’t he the bloke who wrote those spy novels?”
The Old-Fashioned has remained because it is in essence the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Everyone has most likely tasted one and, like vanilla ice cream, everyone most probably enjoyed it. Not that this is a point against it, as any ice cream aficionado will tell you a good quality vanilla is worth all the flavors in the world – the same is true of an Old-Fashioned. The drink is easy to make, easy to order, and sweet enough for almost anyone to tolerate while possessing a certain je ne sais quoi of coolness largely epitomized by the grey-suited figure of Don Draper. Take it from a former bartender though, as a sweet drink that has been marketed as the epitome of manliness, another reason that this drink remains popular is that for many it ticks the boxes of fragile masculinity: short glass, big ice, dark spirit, grrr man!
Whatever the reason may be for its enduring success, there is no denying that the Old-Fashioned is here to stay. Although I am usually a martini drinker, even I must admit that the Old-Fashioned is a perfect winter drink. So, during the colder months when the nights are long and the days are brisk, I have been known to dust off the bitters, stir myself an Old-Fashioned and revel in its comforting familiarity.
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