The Inebriationist: A Tale of Two Old Fashioneds

This week, The Inebriationist sets the record straight on Old Fashioneds, and gives you a great conversation starter for your next awkward “cocktail” party.

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by BEAU WILLIAMS, HAWTHORNE & JULEP

Prohibition may have caused the birth of the speakeasy, but it was the death of the Golden Age of Bartending. Most respectable bartenders fled the country to practice their art legally, and America’s hand-made artisanal spirits were replaced by bathtub gin and bootleg whiskey. Prices skyrocketed while quality plummeted — consumption of the bad stuff left some people blind, and others dead.

The worst part? It took us 14 years to right this terrible wrong. And it took about another 80 to recover the original craft of bartending to its more prestigious ancestry.

Not only did the Prohibition have a profound effect on society as a whole, but even some of the libations themselves changed entirely, including the original cocktail, more commonly referred to as the Old Fashioned.

What’s In a Name?

What the hell is a cocktail, anyway? Well, the cocktail led a life not so dissimilar to the martini, just in different centuries. Both started as a specific recipe that metamorphosized into a broader, almost all-encompassing term for an “adult beverage.” Think of the classic dry gin martini: equal parts dry gin, dry vermouth, maybe a dash or two of orange bitters, stirred up well with ice and strained into a cocktail glass and finished with a lemon twist. It’s a beautifully simplistic, dry, boozy, concoction. Now think of a Chocolate Martini: chocolatey, creamy, and sweet. Pretty damned different, wouldn’t you say? Essentially the same thing happened to the cocktail back in the 1800s.

Originally the cocktail was described as a bittered sling. So, what is a sling? Essentially it’s sugar, water, and booze — and it was all the rage. Alcohol was incredibly spirit-y back in the day. Distillers weren’t adding distilled water to reduce the proof (a common practice today). Instead, bartenders took liberties to make them a bit more palatable. A little water to bring the proof down, a little sugar to help make it palatable, and viola! You have yourself a sling!

Someone along the way had a great idea: what if we added bitters to this mixture to balance out some of that sweetness? Brilliant, I say! And suddenly the cocktail was born. Boozy, sweet and slightly bitter, it’s still one of my favorite concoctions.

But by the end of the 1800s, the cocktail became synonymous with anything and everything that came in the glass that bore its name. Sounds familiar, no? And pretty soon the old codgers at the bar were asking for old fashioned cocktails instead of these fancy-pants drinks with juice and liqueurs and shaker tins and the like. So the Cocktail had evolved into the Old Fashioned.

During the Prohibition Era, to cover up the use of lackluster spirits, bartenders started throwing cherries and oranges in the mix. Next thing you know, the modern Old Fashioned was born. In fact, this version was the only one I knew existed in my early years behind the stick. I learned how to make muddled Old Fashioneds for a bunch of old codgers at country clubs way back when. And it took me nearly a decade to figure out the true history of the original cocktail.

And people still have their preferences today as to the making of their Old Fashioned. So much so, that I often ask if they prefer the simple form of sugar, bitters, spirit, or with fruit muddled into the mix. Because when it comes down to it, this isn’t brain surgery, it’s customer service. When people saddle up to my bar top, what they want trumps any beverage geek’s version of what’s right or wrong.

So, you make the call. Here are two versions of an old favorite. Cheers!

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Old Fashioned (original template)

2 ounces well-crafted spirit (the original was likely Cognac or rum based. I personally prefer rye whiskey in mine)
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup (for old-timey purposes, and wonderful flavor, use turbinado sugar. See notes below.)
2-3 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters (almost essential in my Old Fashioned. It’s been around since the birth of the Old Fashioned. So don’t deny destiny, dammit!)

Glassware: an Old Fashioned glass (duh.)

Garnish: Lemon or orange twist

Method: Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill ¾ with ice. Stir well until cold and strain into a chilled old fashioned glass without ice. Garnish and serve.

Recipe for rich simple syrup:

2 cups turbinado sugar (Turbinado sugar is essentially a less refined sugar with a brownish tint and larger crystals. Sugar In The Raw is a common brand.)
1 cup water

Method: Combine ingredients in a sauce pan and place on med high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Allow to simmer until sugar is completely dissolved. Cool, jar, and store in refrigerator. Virtually limitless shelf life on this stuff as long as it’s tightly sealed and refrigerated.

Old Fashioned (modern template)

2 ounces bourbon, rye or brandy (I’ve never had anyone order one with a white spirit. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be damned tasty, so do what you will.)
1 sugar cube (turbinado if you can find it. If not, plain ol’ white sugar will do.)
2 slices of orange
1-2 cherries (I’d use the ones we made a few weeks back, kids. You can thank me later. Those bright red maraschinos are the devils testicles, I say!)
4-5 dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Splash of soda water

Glassware: Old Fashioned glass (surprise!)

Garnish: Orange twist (optional)

Method: Add sugar cube to old fashioned glass. Douse in bitters. Add fruit and a splash of soda water. Muddle well. Add spirit and fill with ice. Stir well, garnish and serve.

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Hawthorne & Julep is a craft cocktail catering company that specializes in events, consulting and good times. They can be found at www.hawthorneandjulep.com as well as on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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