Classic Cocktail: The Old Fashioned
Having its own namesake glass speaks to the status of this eternally popular libation. Its origins are a bit murky, since what we recognize as this drink today, as with most things, has evolved with the passage of time.
As long as people have imbued alcoholic beverages, they have sought ways to make them more palatable. One of the earliest references to the word “cocktail” was in 1806 when a reader of a New York newspaper asked for an explanation of what it meant. The editor responded that it was a combination of spirits, bitters, water and sugar. Though the definition has broadened a bit since then to include other ingredients, it is still valid today. In the first half of the nineteenth century, rum, gin and brandy were all used to make cocktails. By the second half of the nineteenth century, rye whiskey became the country’s tipple of choice. Of course none of the concoctions then were actually dubbed an “Old Fashioned.”
Beginning in the 1860s, bartenders began experimenting, adding orange curacao, absinthe and fruit syrups to their drinks. Juleps, cups and all manner of punch became widespread. Not everybody was impressed with the new mixology, and would ask for an old fashioned-style cocktail instead.
The South has always had a taste for bourbon, especially in its birthplace, Kentucky. At the Pendennis Club, a men’s social club in Louisville, around 1889 a drink appeared named an “Old Fashioned.” Created by barman Martin Cuneo, his original recipe included a lemon twist, orange slice and maraschino cherry muddled with sugar syrup and bitters, and most important of all, bourbon whiskey. Colonel James E. Pepper, club member, bourbon distiller and larger-than-life character, developed a fondness for the new cocktail and is often credited with spreading its fame. By 1895, the first recipe for an Old Fashioned appeared in print.
Just like the martini, another classic cocktail, every imbiber seems to have his or her own idea about how to properly make an Old Fashioned. Bourbon is of course still favored in the southern states, but many contend rye is a better choice since it’s not as sweet. Rum even has its fans. Of course, in Wisconsin is has to be made with brandy.
Without question, the Brandy Old Fashioned has to be Wisconsin’s signature cocktail. How this came to be is somewhat of a mystery. There’s a claim that it’s due to German immigrants who developed a fondness for Korbel brandy toward turn of the last century. Francis Korbel, after participating in the failed Bohemian revolution of 1848, fled the country and ultimately ended up in California. There he first produced champagne, followed by brandy in 1889. (If you ever want to get V.I.P. treatment, tour the distillery in Guerneville and tell them you’re from Wisconsin!) Regardless, what sets the Wisconsin-style Old Fashioned apart besides brandy is the question that inevitably follows when one is ordered here: “Sweet or sour?” In addition to the brandy, muddle of fruit with sugar and bitters, “sweet” will include a splash of 7-Up or Sprite, and “sour,” Collins mix or Graf’s 50/50.
Drink fads come and go, but the Old Fashioned is here to stay. Whether a confirmed connoisseur or persuadable skeptic, here are a few places to sample this idiosyncratically American contribution to cocktail culture.
It’s a no-brainer that I would begin here, at a place named after its most beloved libation and pays homage to all food and drink revered by Sconnies. In addition to sweet and sour, you’ll find classic renditions made with bourbon, rum, rye and apple jack.
It takes its drink craft seriously and its Old Fashioned tops the list of signature cocktails. Single barrel bourbon expressly made for the restaurant by George Dickel is sweetened with maple syrup and flavored with house-made bitters.
At bit nonconformist but still quintessentially Wisconsin is its specialty, a Cherry Brandy Old Fashioned, made with cherry-infused brandy, brandy-soaked cherries and ginger beer.
Everything here is made with quality ingredients and a large quantity of imagination. Its ultimate Brandy Old Fashioned combines fine cognac, demerra sugar and bitters; aged in a barrel for two months.
The perfect place to enjoy a Brandy Old Fashioned is at an old-fashioned supper club. This one—on the lake, family run, packed every Friday night for fish fry—is the genuine article. The only heresy here is perhaps the propensity for locals to order the preferred cocktail, either sour or sweet, garnished with a pickled Brussels sprout.
The Madison Club. Predictably, our city’s own private club founded as male-only bastion in 1909 makes an exceptional Brandy Old Fashioned. Its secret is sour morello cherries steeped in kirsch and a bit of cherry juice.
RECIPE: Perfect Old Fashioned
In my opinion and since I’m from Kentucky, I naturally prefer bourbon over brandy—and no soda of any kind to water it down! I like Maker’s Mark 46 because it gives the drink a beautiful amber color, doesn’t sacrifice its bourbon character to fruity sweetness, and has a spiciness further enhanced by bitters.
A well-chilled old-fashioned glass
Muddle the fruit with the syrup and bitters in the bottom of the chilled glass. Add ice and then bourbon. Stir.
Makes 1 drink.
*To make sugar syrup, combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup cold water in a small saucepan. Stir over medium low heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture just comes to the boil. Cool and store covered in the refrigerator.