Fortune.com recently reported that between 2010 and 2014, vodka consumption declined almost 2%. In the same period, whiskey sales rose 2.7%, and American bourbon and Tennessee whiskey both climbed nearly 17%. In the United States alone vodka sales went down 0.3%, whiskey went up 2.7% and American bourbon and Tennessee whiskey rose 7.4%. Classic cocktails continue to gain attention so it’s no surprise that whiskey plays a significant role in many of today’s most popular classics. Before Prohibition was enacted in 1920, cocktails were in their heyday. Many of the classics you now see on bar menus today were created during this turn of the century cocktail boom. The three Martini lunch was a norm and whiskey cocktails like the Sazerac, the Mint Julep and the Manhattan were setting trends. But the one classic that perhaps has gained some of the most attention today is the Old Fashioned. Here is an excerpt from a 1936 New York Times letter to the editor.
“Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moistened a lump of sugar with Angostura bitters, 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. In most places the price was 15¢ or two for a quarter.
Nowadays the modern or ex-speakeasy bartender drops a spoonful of powdered sugar into a glass, adds a squirt of carbonic to aid dissolution, adds a dash or two of some kind of alleged bitters and a lump of ice. Then he proceeds to build up a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple and cherry, and pours in a carefully measured ounce and a half of bar whisky, usually a blend, and gives one a glass rod to stir it. Price: 25¢ to 50¢. Profanation and extortion.”
– Old Timer. New York Times, Jan. 1, 1936.
Although the Old-Fashioned is often credited to having been created by bartender and whiskey aficionado James E. Pepper of the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky. in 1880, the Old Fashioned cocktail is also clearly a rendition of what is generally recognized as the first published definition of the word cocktail itself. The Balance and Columbian Repository, a news publication from Hudson, New York in 1806 defines the word cocktail as a “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters” and is certainly the basis for the modern day recipe.
Pre-Prohibition saw the Old Fashioned as a simple cocktail of booze, sugar, bitters and perhaps water, while post-prohibition imbibers saw it often muddled with some fruit and ice of any size, but today the modern mixologist is in a way, combining the two for a cleaner, sophisticated version. Muddling the fruit is still very much alive today, though the fruit does little to add flavor and even less to aid the appearance. Try stirring your whiskey, sugar and bitters together over ice, and add an orange peel to the top. And don’t forget your lump of ice, neither too large or too small.