History of the Old Fashioned cocktail

History of the Old Fashioned cocktail

By Timo Torner / Last updated on November 10, 2022 

There are drinks that are older than the Old Fashioned cocktail, but still, this drink is considered the original version, and as such, is The Cocktail.

The Old Fashioned is one of the cornerstone cocktails in modern mixology. The first time that the cocktail got mentioned was as early as 1806. Yet, it took another 80 years before people regularly referred to it as an Old Fashioned.

The concoction made from base spirit, sugar cube, aromatic bitters, and water hails its glory and name from the US. But the roots of the cocktail actually lie in England.

Let's look at the timeline of one of the most important drinks in the world.

The 1700s - The roots of the Old Fashioned

The Old Fashioned cocktail long had been thought to be an American invention. After all, its recipe was first mentioned in an American newspaper. But just a few years ago, new information showed that the true roots of the Old Fashioned are not in the US.

It started in the 1690s in Great Britain with the “Elixir Magnum Stomachicum”, a product manufactured and sold by Dr. Richard Stoughton. These Stoughton's bitters were a concentrated essence of various botanicals like barks, peels, and roots. Similar to the cocktail bitters we add to cocktail recipes today.

In the advertisements for his elixir, Richard Stoughton recommended adding his bitters to either Brandy or wine to cure a hangover. Knowing that, at the time, Brandy and wine were always sweetened, it is the earliest reference to an Old Fashioned cocktail.

That, in return, makes the Englishman Dr. Stoughton the inventor of one the most popular mixed drinks in history.

The 1800s - The early days in America

The recipe for an Old Fashioned was one of the first for mixed drinks, long before advanced bartending techniques became a thing. And as far as we know today, the first written mention of the word "cocktail" with the modern meaning appeared in a US newsletter called The Farmers Cabinet

Three years later, in 1806, the first written explanation of the term was given by The Balance and Columbian Repository. They defined a cocktail as a "concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar". Pretty close to an Old Fashioned, right?

First Definition of a cocktail by The Balance and Columbian Repository, 1806

Yet, the name Old Fashioned Cocktail did not come up until about 60 years later. In the meantime, the initial ingredients mentioned in The Balance and Columbian Repository were twisted, changed, and modified a lot. 

At the time, a cocktail was no term for a whole category of drinks. It was that one particular thing you would call a cocktail.

By the 1860s, this cocktail had changed, and additional ingredients like CuraçaoAbsinthe, and other liqueurs were part of it. Eventually, people not overly fond of these additions started to remember the old traditional recipe -and mix- the initial version again. They called it an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail to ensure that the "fancy" modern additions were not part of it.

The mid to late 1800s - Public mentions & Jerry Thomas

Some online sources claim that in 1862 Jerry Thomas mentioned the Old Fashioned in his famous Bartenders Guide. They state that instead of the common Whiskey Old Fashioned, he published a drink called Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail

However, this is untrue. Neither in the book from 1862 nor in the release from 1876 can you find such a recipe. The Bartenders Guide from 1887, though, did contain a recipe for a "Gin cocktail" made with Holland Gin. 

The sources mentioned above dwell on the fact that Holland Gin was used instead of Whiskey. That is, of course, correct but just two recipes above this drink is the same thing made with Whiskey, called a "Whiskey Cocktail".

Bartenders Guide 1887 - Recipe for Whiskey cocktail & Gin cocktail

In 1880, the drink was part of an announcement made by the Chicago Daily Tribune in regard to Samuel Tilden's withdrawal from the Presidential elections. They wrote:

“Hot-whiskies, Scotch and Irish, particularly the latter, sour-mashes, and old-fashioned cocktails were drank in honor of the event.” 

Fifteen years later, in 1895, George Kappeler included a recipe for an "Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail" in his book Modern American Drinks.

Kappeler Old Fashioned Whiskey cocktail recipe

Old Fashioned Cocktail & Prohibition

The recipe for an Old Fashioned cocktail did not change until prohibition started in the US on Jan 17th, 1920 (lasted until Dec 5th, 1933). During the years alcohol was banned, bartenders started muddling fruity ingredients like a Maraschino cherry or orange slice together with bitters and the sugar cube.

This fruity addition to the classic recipe is most likely related to the poor quality of spirits, helping to cover the harsh and biting alcoholic notes. For many years, in some places until the 1990s, this fruit-driven version survived.

Only once the craft cocktail renaissance had begun, bartenders started again to respect the traditional recipes. In the case of the Old Fashioned cocktails, that means - Whiskey, sugar cubes, bitters, and water. Fruits were only a form of garnish.

Modern-day popularity

Today, similar to the Negroni, a huge crowd celebrates this classic cocktail. There's a special event every October called Old Fashioned Week. It was initiated by Elijah Craig, a well-known Whiskey brand, in partnership with Punch magazine. 

In 2015, Louisville named the drink its official cocktail. Since then, every year during the first two weeks of June, the city celebrates "Old Fashioned Fortnight." 

Various cocktail specials throughout the city and Bourbon events are held and peak on June 14th, National Bourbon Day.

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