Old-Fashioned

The Old-Fashioned used to be somebody. In the world of drinks, it was the guy next door, the one who keeps his house painted and sweeps up the leaves and takes the neighborhood kids to the baseball game. Steady, reliable, a tad dull, perhaps, but no creampuff and no pushover. A veteran.

You used to be able to walk into any bar & grill anywhere in the country and be able to expect that they’d fit one of these together for you with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of competence. After all, there’s nothing simpler. You just muddle up a sugar cube with a couple dashes of bitters, pour in a slug of whiskey, slide in a clutch of ice cubes and stir, stir, stir. Lemon peel and you’re done. Easy. So easy, in fact, that you could make one while bouncing around the sky in a small plane. That, anyway, is what Jim Backus contends in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, when he asks his temporary copilot Mickey Rooney to mix them up a round. Rooney, naturally, is skeptical: “Old-Fashioneds? Do you think you oughta drink while you’re flying?” Backus’s response is a classic: “Well, stop kidding, will ya, and make us some drinks! . . . It’s the only way to fly!”

That movie came out in 1963, at about the end of the Old-Fashioned’s century and a half of popularity. The O.-F. began its career right after the Revolutionary War, when it was known simply as the Whiskey Cock-Tail. A simple mixture of whiskey, bitters, sugar and water, it gained ice and lemon peel in the 1830s and a whole bunch of fancy stuff shortly after that. When drinkers got tired of the fancy stuff and went back to the basics, it picked up that “Old-Fashioned” monicker; that was in the 1890s.

It didn’t take long for things to start slipping—the 1910s saw the introduction of a gratuitous fruit garnish, which Prohibition saw muddled into the drink, with results not unlike dressing that solid neighbor in a pink gingham apron. Order an Old-Fashioned nowadays and you’re likely to get not only the fruit paste and too much sugar, but the whole thing drowned in club soda to boot. There is hope, though—the Old-Fashioned has become something of a hipster’s drink lately, and say what you will about hipsters, they do pay attention to the details.

1 sugar cube or 1/2 teaspoon loose sugar
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces straight rye or bourbon whiskey
Lemon peel

Muddle (that is, crush with a grinding motion using a wooden muddler) the sugar with 1 teaspoon of water—for God’s sake, no more—and the Angostura bitters in a heavy-bottomed Old Fashioned class until the sugar dissolves. Add the whiskey and stir briefly; add 2 or 3 ice cubes and stir some more; squeeze a large swatch of thin-cut lemon peel over the top and drop it in. This drink is always best if you let it sit for a minute or two before sipping it.

Substitutions: For the sugar, turbinado or other raw sugar, or rich simple syrup (this saves stirring, but that’s not necessarily a good thing with this drink); for the whiskey, cognac or other brandy, tequila, gin (see below), applejack, or just about any other liquor up to and including plain old vodka (see below also). For the bitters, any other kind of bitters; for the lemon twist, a twist of orange peel.

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