Old Fashioned: The True History & Origin of the Cocktail

By Timo Torner / Last updated on September 2, 2023

The Old Fashioned is one of the most important cocktails in history. The simple concoction of spirit, sugar, bitters, and water has a long tradition. Let's look at the Old Fashioned history and how the drink evolved over centuries.
Old Fashioned Cocktail History

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

The mix made from base spirit, sugar cube, Angostura bitters, and water garnished with an orange peel hails its glory and name from the US. But the roots of the cocktail actually lie in England.

Let's look at the history of the Old Fashioned, one of the most important drinks in the world.

1700s: The Roots of the Old Fashioned Cocktail

In the 1700s, long before the Old Fashioned history even began, the template of mixing a base spirit, simple syrup, and bitters was promoted in advertisements for Stoughton's bitters. 

The Old Fashioned cocktail long had been thought to be an American invention. After all, the 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 drink template 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 an Old Fashioned recipe today.

In the advertisements for his elixir, Richard Stoughton recommended adding his bitters to either Brandy or wine to cure a hangover. At this time, brandy and wine were always sweetened with sugar. That makes this medical concoction 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 Origin of the Old Fashioned

The Origin of the Old Fashioned - Columbian Repository

The story of the Old Fashion began in 1806 when The Balance and Columbian Repository published the first written explanation of the term. They defined a cocktail as a "concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar." Here's the complete reference to the first Old Fashioned:

“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?”

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

“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.”

Why is it called an Old Fashioned cocktail?

The Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail got its name to distinguish it from more modern cocktails. People wanted to ensure that the "fancy" modern additions were not part of it. Instead, they preferred the good old recipe of whiskey, Angostura bitters, and syrup.

The term Old Fashioned cocktail did not come up until about 60 years after the term cocktail came up. 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, the “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. 

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

Jerry Thomas Old Fashioned Recipe 1862

In 1862, legendary bartender Jerry Thomas mentioned the Old Fashioned in his famous Bartenders Guide. It's listed as Whiskey Cocktail, and his recipe asked for whiskey, gum syrup, bitters, and lemon peel. Thomas instructed to shake the drink and strain it into a wine glass.

Today, the recipe for a classic Old Fashioned is a bit different. It's not shaken but built in a glass, uses simple syrup or a sugar cube instead of gum bitters, and uses orange peel instead of lemon peel as garnish. Last but not least, the drink is served in an Old Fashioned glass, not a wine glass.

So, in 1862 the first recipe for the drink was published in a cocktail book, but there's still no evidence for the drink's name. That took until 1880 when 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.”

The Modern Old Fashioned cocktail

Modern Old Fashioned Recipe by Kappeler 1895

In 1895, George Kappeler included an "Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail" recipe in his book Modern American Drinks. For many cocktail historians like David Wondrich and Robert Simonson, this is the missing link between the Whiskey Cocktail and the Old Fashioned drink as we know it today. 

In an interview, Simonson explains:

“The Old-Fashioned was an evolution of the Whiskey Cocktail which was simply whiskey, sugar, bitters, and water, and was served as early as 1800 or so.”

However, the discussion about the true official origin of the recipe is still ongoing. Some credit Kappeler as the inventor of the modern recipe, others say Colonel James E. Pepper is the original creator. 

They claim that Pepper invented the Old Fashioned while working at The Pendennis Club, a private social club in KY. He then took the recipe to New York, where he started working at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City.

Old Fashioned Cocktail & Prohibition

Until prohibition started in the US on Jan 17th, 1920 (lasted until Dec 5th, 1933), the recipe didn't change significantly. During 1920 and 1933, alcohol was banned, and bartenders started muddling fruity ingredients like a Maraschino cherry or orange slice 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.

In an article from 1936 published in the New York Times, the author discusses the times after prohibition ended in the US. In said article, he mentions how bartenders prepared the drink, explaining that customers were handed the whole Bourbon bottle to pour the drink themselves:

“Consider, for instance, the Old-Fashioned cocktail. Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moisted a lump of sugar with Angostura bitter, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large or too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink.”

Once the craft cocktail renaissance started, bartenders again respected 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 and mostly limited to orange peels.

Modern-day popularity

Today, a huge crowd celebrates this classic cocktail traditionally made of Bourbon, Angostura aromatic bitters, sugar, and soda water. Similar to Negroni Week, 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.

The cocktail also had a cultural impact, as it is mentioned in countless movies, TV series, books, and songs. One of the most popular ones is Mad Men, a TV series from the 1960s. Here, the Old Fashioned is the favorite cocktail of lead character Don Draper.

Variations on the classic recipe

When bartenders mix drinks repeatedly, they often start to tweak the original recipes. While aiming to create the perfect Old Fashioned, many excellent variations established themselves as independent drinks. 

Here are some of the most popular twists on the Old Fashioned cocktail:

  • Wisconsin Old Fashioned: Wisconsin cocktails aka brandy Old Fashioned is a twist on the classic recipe made with brandy, sugar, and Angostura bitters. The drink is topped with either lemon-lime soda, grapefruit soda, or Seltzer.
  • Oaxaca Old Fashioned: This Tequila and Mezcal Old Fashioned twist is sweetened with agave nectar and garnished with a flamed orange peel.
  • Rum Old Fashioned: Using aged, quality rum instead of bourbon or rye whiskey gets you a sweeter drink packed with caramel, vanilla, and sugar flavors.
  • Scotch Old Fashioned: A well-made Scotch Old Fashioned is an excellent smoky riff on the classic recipe. The recipe asks for peated Scotch whisky, Demerara syrup, and chocolate bitters. Garnished with a Maraschino cherry this drink is sure to impress.

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