The Old Fashioned is more than just a whisky cocktail, it’s also a concept, as the same principle of sweetening, chilling and diluting can be applied to other aged spirits, such as rum or brandy, to make an alternative old fashioned with an individual flavour.
Originally created as a bourbon cocktail in the 1880s, the venue was the Pendennis Club, a gentlemen’s club in Louisville, Kentucky. The recipe is believed to have been a joint effort between a bartender, and a bourbon distiller, Colonel James E. Pepper, though history doesn’t relate their individual contributions. The Pepper family had a long tradition of distilling bourbon, owning a distillery on the site now occupied by Labrot & Graham. Ordering an Old Fashioned is actually the beginning of a discussion, as there are various options at each stage that influence the final flavour.
The initial choice is the style, not to mention the brand and age of whiskey, with bourbon typically sweeter than rye whiskey (which matters as the cocktail is subsequently sweetened). At The Pendennis Club, where the Old Fashioned is definitely a speciality, one option is the Pendennis Bourbon, an exclusive bottling for the club.
However, a sugar cube is the first ingredient placed into a tumbler, technically an ‘Old Fashioned’ glass, which is a rare example of glassware being named after a cocktail.
Choosing white sugar means a lighter, less caramelised sweetness than brown sugar, though whatever the colour, sugar cubes can vary significantly in size and affect the final degree of sweetness (and also the consistency of the flavour each time it’s made).
That’s why some bartenders prefer to use granulated sugar or sugar syrup, as this can be accurately measured. However, sugar syrups tend to have additional ingredients beyond sugar, which can endow the cocktail with a floral note.
A dash of Angostura Bitters is sprinkled over the sugar cube, with another option being to include Orange Bitters as well, which adds further sweetness and ‘orange marmalade’ fruityness. Some recipes also take this a stage further, by adding orange and lemon zest wedges to intensify the citrus notes.
Sprinkling the sugar cube also plays a more practical role by helping to soften it, which is good news as the next stage is muddling (crushing) the sugar cube using a muddler (pestle).
As this can be quite hard work, adding an extra dash of water or soda water to the glass is hardly unusual, reducing the time and effort required to grind the sugar by about half. The sugar must be completely ground and dissolved, otherwise the ‘grittyness’ of any remaining grains will compromise the cocktail. The usual 50 ml of whiskey should be added to the glass in small amounts, accompanied by an ice cube, and stirred until the ice has melted enough to create some dilution (though remaining intact). Repeating the process of stirring in a little more whiskey, together with a fresh ice cube each time, has various advantages. A gradual accumulation of liquid in the glass is entirely practical, avoiding extraneous splashes beyond the glass while stirring. It also creates an element of theatricality, which heightens anticipation.
More importantly, this approach ensures a thorough integration of water and whiskey at each stage, and consequently a finer tasting cocktail. The resulting ‘frosty wrap’ around the sides of the glass not only looks appealing, but confirms that the ‘stir and integrate’ method has been followed. The final degree of dilution depends on personal taste, or on the bartender preparing the cocktail for you. As this reduces the alcoholic strength to varying degrees, it also affects the flavour profile delivered by the whiskey.
But the Old Fashioned isn’t a long drink, and starting with 50 ml of whiskey usually results in a total of around 75-90 ml (with ice cubes nevertheless evident in the cocktail on completion). Another optional extra is some maraschino cherry syrup (from the jar), which contributes lusciousness and sweetness, particularly in conjunction with bourbon and Orange Bitters. A classic digestif cocktail to sip and savour, the Old Fashioned is garnished with a twist of orange and a maraschino cherry. The orange zest can initially be squeezed above the surface of the cocktail, to release some of the oils, and the rim of the glass can also be swiped with the zest for an additional fruity touch.