I’ll have a [drink],” says the bar guest confidently, and without a menu, like a reflex. “I saw it on [show] and I really like how [character] looked drinking out of its signature glass.” Maybe they don’t say the last part out loud, but it goes without saying.
That drink used to be the Cosmopolitan. Now, it’s the Old Fashioned. Yes, we revere one as an all-time classic and the other as that girly-sweet from the ‘90s, But they have more in common than you’d think.
The Old Fashioned originated in the mid-19th century as the very definition of a “cocktail,” a spirit taken with sugar, water, and bitters. As variations on the theme became more complicated, the bare original was called a Whiskey Cocktail “the old fashioned way,” and just “Old Fashioned” by the 1880s.
But tart and fruity drinks have been around just as long. Old cocktail books are full of recipes that combine spirits and orange liqueur with fruit, like a Cosmo does with vodka, triple sec, lime and cranberry (a fruit that was bound to have its day in a spirited drink eventually.)
The drinks are also both defined by their glassware of choice. While pink drinks served ‘up’ were historically the domain of men (look up the Clover Club), the blush-pink Cosmo in a martini glass became an icon of modern femininity thanks to Madonna and then “Sex and the City.” Martini glasses thus became associated with “girly” drinks and birthing the eye-roll-inducing phrase “manly glass” that all bar patrons must take an oath to never say again. Ever.
If there is an Old Fashioned on a cocktail menu today, it will be the bestseller, and if there isn’t an Old Fashioned on the menu it will be the most commonly called-for cocktail. But how did this original Whiskey Cocktail become a reflexive drink order in every bar in America in the 2000s?
The modern Old Fashioned phenomenon was part of the greater craft cocktail movement, in which bartenders rediscovered long-forgotten pre-Prohibition cocktails. Whiskey, especially rye, also regained popularity after decades of neglect thanks largely to this renaissance. The revival also coincided with the popularity of “Mad Men,” which features a cast of manly men who drink whiskey at work and look effortlessly cool when ordering or making an Old Fashioned, the poster child for the cocktail revival.
The Cosmo went on to be the scapegoat for the crowd of questionable “-tini” drinks that came in its wake, prompting cocktail snobs and pretentious bartenders to shame Cosmo drinkers (intentionally or otherwise) out of their comfort zone and towards its more obscure, but equally delicious relatives like the White Lady and Clover Club.
It’s only fair to give the Old Fashioned drinkers of this decade a similar nudge. Sticking with bourbon or rye whiskey limits the possibility that the original cocktail started with. Here are two recipes to get started—but try the formula with genever, rum or whatever spirit you have on hand.
Oaxaca Old Fashioned
By Phil Ward
1½ ounces Reposado Tequila
½ ounce Mezcal
1/8 ounce Agave Nectar (about 1 bar spoon)
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Stir over ice and strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Garnish with an orange peel.
By Jerry Thomas
2 ounces VS Cognac (I prefer Pierre Ferrand 1840)
¼ ounce Orgeat (almond syrup)
3 dashes Bittercube Bolivar Bitters
Stir over ice and strain into a chilled coupe with no ice. Garnish with a lemon peel.