The Old Fashioned has a long history, stretching back to the early 19th century. It’s a long path that saw both a mid-20th-century fruity downfall and a new-century resurgence (aka “The Mad Men Effect.”)
That’s all been documented — and quite well in Robert Simonson’s cocktail history tome The Old-Fashioned. But now what? Mad Men ended in 2015. And today when we talk about cocktails, we tend to speak of the margarita (the most popular drink), spritzes, Paper Planes, Espresso Martinis and Negronis. The Old Fashioned seems almost quaint. Never mind the drink’s simplicity or versatility (or deliciousness) — is it passé?
Based on numbers, no. “The Old Fashioned is the only whiskey cocktail to grow in popularity over the last few years,” says Lynn House, Heaven Hill’s National Spirits Specialist and Portfolio Mixologist. “Its enduring simplicity yet versatility not only keeps its spot as one of the most popular cocktails but also supports its growth in popularity with the creativity of bartenders.”
Of course, Heaven Hill has some skin in this game. Through its bourbon brand Elijah Craig, the drinks giant is in the midst of its annual Old Fashioned Week celebration (now through Oct. 22), where over 5,000 bars around the country serve their variations of the classic cocktail as part of a philanthropic effort with Southern Smoke Foundation.
But there’s other evidence that the Old Fashioned remains an extremely popular drink. It’s the second-best-selling classic cocktail, according to a global survey of the world’s best bars put out by Drinks International (though it used to be in first place). CGA by NielsenIQ’s cocktail tracker consistently has the drink in its top 10.
Ask a bartender or two (or a dozen, as we did) and you’ll get plenty of anecdotal evidence that the drink is a steady seller. And most importantly, the Old Fashioned seems to excite mixologists, as it’s a drink that’s endlessly riffable. House points to a bartender named Colleen Hughes at Supperland in Charlotte, NC, who’s created a unique take on the drink called ‘Hail to the Queen City Old Fashioned’. Says House: “She’s brought in hickory grilled pineapple and toasted cinnamon syrup to the mix, using Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon as the base. She’s also using Tiki Bitters as an accent flavor.”
Still, being a steady seller doesn’t necessarily create an aura of cool. “The Old Fashioned is an old drink,” admits Jake Larowe, the Bar Manager at The Tam O’Shanter in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest whiskey collections in California. “The oldest known record of the word ‘cocktail’ is in reference to a mixed drink that describes the Old Fashioned. With that being said, over the last decade or so it has definitely grown in popularity. It’s hard to say if the Old Fashioned has become more popular, but certainly hasn’t lost any popularity.”
The 10 Best Bourbons for an Old FashionedThese excellent expressions will elevate the classic cocktail
But maybe coolness isn’t the point. “A guest who orders an Old Fashioned is a guest who knows what they want — no frills, no thrills, just a good consistent cocktail to unwind with,” adds Larowe. “As a bartender, I love Old Fashioneds. Whenever I make an Old Fashioned I always take it as an opportunity to focus on something simple and try to make it perfect. Each one is a little zen moment for me.”
“As a native Nashville bartender, I’ve been in the market for over 15 years and have seen extensive growth in guests ordering the Old Fashioned,” says Whitney Cameron, the lead bartender at Tennessee’s 1799 Kitchen & Cocktails. “We are located in the heart of bourbon and whiskey country, and the demand continues to grow as guests travel to Tennessee and want to taste what’s local.”
And in some parts of the country, the drink is thriving because of its long history. “We’ve actually noticed a huge resurgence in classic cocktails and many styles and variations of the Old Fashioned,” says Jennifer Jackson, Beverage Manager at Thompson Restaurants. “It also acts as a litmus test for barkeeps and mixologists. If you can’t make a great Old Fashioned, chances are you don’t know what you’re doing behind the bar.”
Where the Old Fashioned is thriving is where bartenders are embracing its versatility. Reminder, you don’t need or never have needed to use whiskey — witness the Wisconsin Old Fashioned (made with brandy), which is certainly having a moment. There are plenty of easy spirits substitutes — Jackson’s restaurants are seeing a lot of success by embracing the super-trendy tequila craze. “An Agave Old Fashioned, which is tequila, mezcal, agave syrup and bitters, is on several of our menus,” she says. “Mezcal and Tequila are both surging in popularity and are in the top three spirits people order, so we wanted to create a drink to meet the demand for agave-based spirits.” (And you can even play around with the base spirit itself, as Jackson notes; for example, MatchBox, a Thompson Restaurant, offers a Cornflake Aged Rum Old Fashioned. “It’s perfect for brunch with the nod to breakfast in the cornflake wash, but it’s also great for dessert or really, any time.”)
But the concept of an Old Fashioned admittedly still tends to revolve around whiskey. And the whiskey brands themselves have noticed the drink’s evolution. “I think drink popularity shifts based on season,” says Benny Hurwitz, Portfolio Ambassador at Wild Turkey Distilling Co. “Think of the Negroni, the Aperol Spritz, the Margarita or the Old Fashioned. That said, variations of an Old Fashioned are seen on menus all around the country, year-round. It’s categorized as a classic cocktail for a reason and will always be a staple – in one variation or another – on any good bar menu.”
“The drink’s been around since the 1800s, and I think it’s evolved with each generation,” says Tamsen Braam, General Manager at The Family Jones Distillery and Spirit House in Colorado (which, besides its whiskey and spirits offerings, bottles a ready-to-drink smoky Old Fashioned). “We’ve had success with our Rock & Rye, a Prohibition-style Old Fashioned that has been doctored up with rock candy. And we have a drink at the distillery called ‘It’s Rob’s Way’ that’s more of a combination of the Old Fashioned and a Manhattan.”
“While the classic Old Fashioned has its loyalists — I’m definitely one of them — we’ve noticed an uptick in requests for variations,” says Joe Shaw, the founder of Bartender Planet. “Some popular twists include using different types of bitters, incorporating alternative sweeteners like agave or honey, and even experimenting with various citrus peels for garnish. That said, there’s a sizable group that believes the classic recipe is sacrosanct and shouldn’t be tampered with.”
If you do tamper with the drink, well, it’s easy enough to do: Use maple syrup instead of sugar or simple syrup, add an unexpected liqueur (say, Fernet), play around with the base spirit, use a split base (rum and mezcal is exquisite), use a bacon fat wash, etc. Part of the charm of the Old Fashioned is how it stays a classic while being amenable to change. And easy to make.
“The Old Fashioned has stayed in fashion because it encapsulates the definition of a true cocktail: Spirit, bitter, sugar and water,” says House. “The majority of classic cocktails have this formulation as their base. The recipe is straightforward. The ingredients can be as simple or complex as the creator and enjoyer decide. I will say this; simplicity will always survive the test of time.”
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