Not long ago, a woman requested an Old Fashioned at the bar where I work. I prepared one according to our house recipe — bonded bourbon, demerara sugar syrup and a healthy dose of bitters. I slid the cocktail across the bar and watched her take a sip. “Ah, that’s a wonderful boff,” she declared. Catching wind of my puzzlement, she explained: “A Bourbon Old Fashioned. BOF. That’s what my father always called them!”
The Old Fashioned seems to demand this sort of nostalgia. Whether wincing at the watery version at your college dive or fondly recalling your father hollering for a fresh “boff,” the Old Fashioned is a drink with tangled roots and deep personal ties. To some generations, an Old Fashioned is a drink served over heaps of muddled fruit and topped with club soda. If you hail from Wisconsin, your Old Fashioned might contain Korbel brandy and Squirt soda (a peculiar but beloved regional variation). And if you frequent modern cocktail bars, you’ve seen all manner of cheeky spins on the classic drink.
As the name suggests, the Old Fashioned has been around for an awfully long time. It wasn’t always called that, however. Most cocktail historians agree that the name was born of a backlash against the “improved” cocktails that flooded America in the late 19th century. In his recent book on the Old Fashioned, Robert Simonson shares an 1886 article by Leander Richardson, who writes, “The modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it.” When enough barflies become fed up with fancy offerings and bark for a cocktail made “the old-fashioned way,” you have a catchy new name for a classic drink.
More than a century later, the Old Fashioned still serves the same purpose: Amidst a landscape of elaborate and unfamiliar cocktails, the Old Fashioned is like an old friend. When I managed a bar, I learned a trick that’s hardly an industry secret: Put a drink with “old fashioned” in the name on your menu. It will sell. Old Fashioneds are Long Island Ice Teas for millennials: a familiar fallback that’s all but guaranteed to go down easy.
The Old Fashioned is more of a template than a specific recipe, simply calling for a spirit, a sweetener, bitters and ice. Switch out any part of that equation (make aged rum the base, or use honey instead of sugar) for a delightful variation. Cecil Usher, of Butcher and the Rye, shares one such tweak on the classic, perfect for the changing seasons.
Fall Old Fashioned by Cecil Usher
- 2 oz. Maker’s Mark
- Half-an-ounce maple simple syrup
- Quarter-of-an-ounce St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
- 2 drops Urban Moonshine Maple Bitters
- 1 dash Angostura Orange Bitters
- Stir with ice. Pour into rocks glass with a large cube. Garnish with a flamed orange peel. Enjoy.