14 Whiskey cocktail (Old-Fashioned)

31 Jul

I said, sorrowfully—”I feel ashamed of myself, Mr Ward.  I know I ought to understand you perfectly well, but you see that treacherous whiskey cocktail has got into my head, and I now I cannot understand the simplest proposition . . .”

— Mark Twain, “First Interview with Artemus Ward”, Sketches New and Old (Hartford, CT, American Publishing, 1893), pp. 286-91 (p. 289).

He and the major fraternised at once, and were soon deep in a learned conversation on the right way to mix a mint julep. From that the conversation naturally passed to the old-fashioned whiskey-cocktail, and so movingly did the major deplore its passing, and so eloquently did he expatiate on its merits, that when the butler brought the martinis, Mr. Corliss waved them away and asked the major to prove his assertions.

— George Horace Lorimer, Jack Spurlock—Prodigal (New York: Doubleday, 1908), p. 298.

The whiskey cocktail, and the gin or brandy cocktail, were the earliest cocktails, in the original, narrow sense of the word (and for an explanation of what distinguished this particular species of mixed drinks from their cousins, see here).  And while the gin and brandy cocktails have long since fallen out of favour, displaced by the martini and the hundreds of other gin-based concoctions, the whiskey cocktail, which already by the late nineteenth century was known as an “old-fashioned (whiskey cocktail)”, is still enjoyed today, even if often resembles a fruit salad manqué.

Why? Because it works. It’s simple, unfussy, and endlessly enjoyable.But don’t just take my word for it:

The modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it. A bartender in one of the most widely known New York establishments for the dispensation of drinks was telling me the other day that there had set in an unmistakable stampeded in favor of old-fashioned cocktails. In the regular line of drinks coming under this name very bartender seems to have established his own private brand, so that people who are in the habit of whetting their appetites by the use of the friendly cocktail never know beforehand what they are going to take into their stomachs as they pass from bar to bar. The old-fashioned cocktail, on the contrary, is everywhere recognized as being made with a little sugar, a little bitters, a lump of ice, a piece of twisted lemon peel, and a good deal of whisky. It has no absinthe, no chartreuse and no other flavoring extract injected into it, and if not poured in too heavily upon an empty stomach it is anything other than unwholesome. It is, therefore, hardly a wonder that people are going back to it, after being surfeited with all kinds of mixtures that the active minds of bartenders can invent.

— “The Cocktail of Today”, Atlanta Constitution, 3 November, 1886, p. 4.

Take the following old-fashioned old-fashioned recipe, from Albert Barnes’ The Complete Bartender: The Art of Mixing Cocktails, Punches, Egg Nogs, Smashes, Sangarees,  Slings, Cobblers, the Fizz, Juleps, Flips, Toddys, Crustas, and all Plain and Fancy Drinks in the Most Approved Style (Philadelpia: Crawford: 1884), published just two years before the article we just quoted. Tellingly, this recipe, similar to that of Jerry Thomas in his Bartender’s Guide, is the very first in the book.

And that’s pretty much that, an unimprovable formula. We just need to bring it up to date slightly (and, as the Gun Club Cook Book suggests, these days the glasses are “stirred  but never strained” [New York: Scribner’s 1930, p. 246]):

2 ½ oz rye whiskey (or bourbon, if you prefer)

1 teaspoon simple syrup

3 dashes Angostura bitters

3 dashes of orange bitters.

Serve with a lemon peel or cocktail cherry, but nothing more than that.


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