When you think of bourbon cocktails, it's likely that the first place your mind goes is to the old fashioned, and with good reason. The drink is a classic, with its simple recipe and delicious flavor making it a favorite of bourbon fans for over 150 years... 

old fashioned classic recipe

Whether you're a longtime bourbon drinker or just getting into everything that the delicious spirit has to offer, it's worth taking the time to learn more about the history of the old fashioned cocktail and what has made it such a longstanding tradition.

What Is an Old Fashioned?

The old fashioned is a bourbon cocktail with minimal frills. Containing only whiskey, bitters, sugar or simple syrup, and a citrus peel garnish, the drink offers the clean taste of bourbon with just a bit of sweetness to take the edge off and serve as contrast. This makes it a favorite cocktail for bourbon drinkers who love the taste of their preferred brand, as it allows the complex flavors of your spirit of choice to remain front and center throughout the drink. It can also be an excellent option for beginner bourbon drinkers looking to try a classic cocktail.

History of the Old Fashion Invention

The history of the old fashioned goes back nearly as far as the first written instance of the concept of a spirit cocktail, which occurred in an 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbian Repository that described a cocktail quite similar to the old fashioned in response to a reader question asking for a definition. The history of the old fashioned itself dates back to 1862 when it appeared in Jerry Thomas's “Bartender's Guide: How to Mix Drinks,” with gin in place of bourbon as the primary spirit.

Credit for the creation of the old-fashioned as we know it today likely belongs to James E. Pepper, who swapped the gin for some local bourbon while mixing drinks at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. That same recipe appeared in the 1895 book “Modern American Drinks” by George Kappeler, who labeled the drink a whiskey old fashioned, making it easier for the drink to spread from its home city.

It wasn't long before whiskey became the default spirit for an old fashioned, and the addition of the whiskey label was no longer necessary. In fact, the old fashioned became so synonymous with whiskey cocktails that in many establishments in the early 1900s, you could order the drink by simply requesting “a whiskey cocktail.” Your bartender would know that you were seeking a simple and delicious old fashioned cocktail.

Old Fashioned Variants Emerge

Due to the popularity of the old fashioned in drinking establishments the world over, it was only a matter of time before variations began to emerge, with drink specialists offering their own unique twists on the cocktail. One of the most common ways to modify the cocktail was to adjust the spirit. However, other mixologists preferred to keep the bourbon in place and looked to the other ingredients to leave their mark.

Some variations call for an alteration to the bitters, adding additional mixes to complement the rich and complex flavors of the bourbon. One popular choice is to sweeten the drink through the addition of fruits or sweet spirits that serve as a contrast to the flavors of the bourbon.

Other modern options seek to update the mouthfeel of the drink, such as the addition of a small amount of soda water to the mix. This creates a more effervescent version of the cocktail, with the bubbles from the soda water adding a unique pop that the traditional recipe doesn't include. In each of these cases, a quality bourbon remains the key component that provides that special flavor bourbon drinkers love.

The Official Cocktail of Louisville, Kentucky

Given the prominence of bourbon whiskey in Louisville, Kentucky, culture, it should come as no surprise to learn that residents of the city hold the old fashioned in high esteem. The reverence for this delicious cocktail goes beyond simply enjoying it in the many excellent bars around the city, however. The city took this adoration to official levels in 2015, when mayor Greg Fischer declared the drink the official cocktail of Louisville.

The formal title is just one of the ways that Louisville shows its appreciation for the history of the old fashioned. Every year from June 1 to 14, the city also celebrates old fashioned Fortnite, a two-week-long celebration of everything old fashioned. This celebration reaches its natural climax in its conclusion each year on June 14, National Bourbon Day. There's never a bad time to get an old fashioned in Louisville, but these two weeks make for a particularly appealing opportunity.

The Cultural Impact of the Old Fashioned

While the old fashioned may have come into existence and made its name in the southern United States, that doesn't mean it's just a local drink. The history of the old fashioned extends throughout the U.S. and the world since its earliest days. New York City's 25th mayor, Samuel J. Tilden, was so fond of the drink that it became a common refreshment at his political events in the late 19th century. It even served as a showpiece drink at an event held at the conclusion of his candidacy for President of the United States of America.

With nearly two centuries of history, the bourbon old fashioned has been satisfying patrons through the generations. This is primarily due to both the delicious flavor that makes so many whiskey lovers choose bourbon as well as the simplicity of its recipe. By allowing the bourbon to take center stage while complementing it with additional flavors, the old fashioned has earned its reputation as a classic cocktail.

While the history of the old fashioned may be long, its future is likely to be even longer. The enduring qualities which help the old fashioned outlast its counterparts and appeal to modern drinkers will likely continue to do so for centuries to come. Every time you pour yourself an old fashioned or order one from your favorite establishment, you join a long cocktail tradition. So whether you're learning about this delicious spirit or partaking in yet another round of your favorite drink, think about the long history of the old fashioned as you enjoy one with some delicious bourbon

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