History of the Old Fashioned Cocktail

Your cocktail of choice isn’t just a drink. It reveals a little something about who you are. Your bartender remembers you by it. These days, the word cocktail has come to mean any mixed drink with liquor. But it all started with just one: The Old Fashioned.

Innovative tipplers began mixing “medicinal” bitters into their alcohol around the 1700s, but it wasn’t until 1806 until anyone actually defined the word “cocktail” (May 6, 1806, to be exact, in case you want to celebrate or something). The editor of the The Balance and Columbia Repository in Hudson, NY had the honor.

What'll it be?

What'll it be?

“Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters – it is vulgarly called bittered sling, and it is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”

By the 1860s, though, we Americans (always an individualistic lot) had gone and tweaked the original recipe however we damn well pleased, usually by adding orange curaçao, absinthe, or other liqueurs. Fortunately for posterity, the original concoction was just too archetypal to die, and in an 1880 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, it was first dubbed an “old-fashioned.”

According to a Chicago barman quoted in the Tribune in 1882, the most popular old-fashioned cocktails were made with whiskey, and the recipe he describes is akin to the combination of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar that made up the original Cock tail, nearly 70 years earlier. These simple ingredients highlight the spirit without overpowering it.

The Old Fashioned cocktail has undergone a litany of abuses since then, most notably the addition of muddled fruit, but thanks to cocktail historians and concerned mixologists, the original recipe has been restored to the menu.

Next time someone inquires about your drink of choice, answer with pride because your drink of choice is the Original. The Classic. The Old Fashioned.

For a taste of the classic recipe, try Eli Mason’s Old Fashioned Cocktail Mixer.

This post owes a debt to David Wondrich, whose book Imbibe! gives a detailed history of cocktails. Consider picking up a copy if you’re interested in learning more.