Updated: Aug 26, 2019
This article originally appeared on the now-defunct men's magazine website "The Magnifier", a division of VaynerMedia. Writing for this outlet entailed an edgy, conversational voice with the occasionally snarky tone.
“We’re flawed because we want so much more.
We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.”
- Donald Draper, Mad Men
Don Draper: the suave and mildly unbalanced man we all love to hate on Mad Men, always on the verge of some existential crisis or another. Usually, that involves having a drink in hand to keep the worst of it at bay. While there's certainly no need to be teetering on the edge of sanity to enjoy a tipple, take a cue from Mr. Draper and a swig of his signature drink: the whiskey Old Fashioned.
This drink dates way further back than Don in the 1960s; in fact to a whole other set of 60s: 1862, to be exact. Jerry Thomas's Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks was published that year, which features a recipe for something called an Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail. It involves crushing a lump of sugar in the bottom of a glass along with two dashes of Angostura bitters and a bit of water, a lemon peel, a piece of ice, and one jigger of Holland gin. A small bar spoon was given to the patron with which he or she would lazily stir and further dissolve the sugar as they drank.
If the only Old Fashioned you know is one loaded with oranges, made sickly sweet by a packaged mix or Sprite, or topped with a toxically bright cherry...Thomas's concoction won't look much like an Old Fashioned to you. But in fact, the first published iteration of the whiskey Old Fashioned is exactly that same recipe as Thomas's, except with whiskey instead of gin (obviously). A fella by the name of George Kappeler gets the credit for this in his own bartending book Modern American Drinks, circa 1895.
Direct theft of Thomas's idea? It might seem like it, but in the world of cocktails, there are no patents and little joy in secrecy. Drinks evolve all the time based on what's available—necessity as the mother of invention, and all that. (That's the only explanation I can find for the existence of a White Russian).
The simplicity of this four-ingredient cocktail—booze, bitters, water, and sugar—is a ripe jumping-off point for creative additions and riffs. Even so, it is to the 'old fashioned' fuddy-duddies we owe the name. When they ordered, they wanted to make sure they were getting the old fashioned four-ingredient classic with none of those modern flourishes from young whippersnappers.
If you're not yet familiar with Angostura bitters, you're about to level up. While there are by my highly scientific estimation about 14 billion different kinds of bitters on the market now, Angostura remains the original and the classic.
Initially developed by a German doctor in Venezuela as a digestive aid around 1824, the recipe of herbs and botanicals is a closely guarded secret.
Yes, that's right, I'd like to stress that the original purpose was medicinal: to soothe an upset stomach.
Americans quickly caught on to the health benefits, but Angostura bitters can be a bit of an acquired taste. They smartly sidestepped that by tempering it with a bit of alcohol, sugar, and water to help the medicine go down.
And THAT tenuous connection, ladies and gentlemen, is how I explain away my nightly dosage of Old Fashioneds. It's for my health.
There are many ways to enjoy an Old Fashioned. If a classic martini is a little too elegant (or dare I say, fussy) for you, try ordering a traditional Old Fashioned the next time you've sidled up to the bar. Keep in mind that because of the widespread prevalence of orange or cherry additions, you may have to specify the exact four ingredients.
In my hardly humble opinion, it's just as classy and sexy as a martini with the added benefit of being more portable—all the better for socializing as a 'Man About Town.' While there are endless varieties of Old Fashioneds that differ from one bar to the next, do try the classic a couple of times before you decide you don't like it. If it turns out you're not much of a purist, by all means, go run naked straight into the Old Fashioned Playground.
On second thought, maybe keep your clothes on (for now) and go nuts trying different varieties until you hit on one that you like. I prefer an orange peel instead of lemon, or a bit of maple syrup instead of sugar as the sweetener.
If you are a purist after all, that's great! After all, an Old Fashioned is one of the best cocktails to let a good whiskey shine. Just...please don't be a pretentious twat about it. Literally no one likes that guy at the bar who points out that you're drinking the "wrong" version of the drink. Use this knowledge I impart to you for good, young padawan, not for snotty 'oneupmanship.'
While we may owe the Old Fashioned's resurgence in popularity to Donald Draper and Mad Men, the next time you order, know that you're taking part in a much older American tradition. After all...it's for your health.
Grace Everitt is a published writer & editor with nearly ten years of experience in both digital and print media. She is also the president of Grace Marketing Group, and spends her time bouncing between Florida and California.