The Classic Cocktail
An American invention or so claimed by many, the history of the cocktail begins somewhere around the year 1800. Some say the term was first defined in 1806, in a small New York paper called The Balance and Columbian Repository, as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
For a century, the word cocktail would retain this specific definition (it would be a long time before Tom Cruise threw a shaker in the air). In the early days, gin was the spirit of choice. A “gin cocktail” consisted of a snip of loaf sugar soaked in bitters, a few ounces of gin, and a few more of water. You might be given a spoon to finish the bartender’s job as you sit and prepare for the day—oh yes, the cocktail was typically viewed as a fortifying breakfast tonic to kick the morning off right.
It’s important to note at this point that the initial recipe for this 1800s “whiskey cocktail” is still around, and though its popularity has waxed and waned over the last 200 years, it has never truly gone out of style and is in fact in the midst of a heyday of sorts—we simply know this drink by another name: the Old Fashioned.
The Evolution of the Old Fashioned
Typically made with bourbon or rye, the Old Fashioned cocktail can be ordered at almost any bar and each one will be different. If you’re not too picky, you may end up with a cocktail more closely resembling a fruit punch, with a big wedge of orange and some crushed, candy-red cherries swimming in a sea of sugar water and whiskey— which tracks back to the days of prohibition, and still it has its place. At an altogether different bar, where a cocktail costs as much as a bottle of bourbon, you may face off against a drink so complex—with chocolate bitters, edible flowers, smoking cinnamon sticks, and syrups made from things you’ve never heard of—you’ll be left wondering what, exactly, does “old” have to do with it?
How the Whiskey Cocktail Became the Old Fashioned
Imagine a man—older, distinguished, but with his fair share of rough edges. He's self-made. For decades he was out west panning for gold and he beat the odds. He comes back east and finds everything changed. The world outside is moving fast. There are cars everywhere in the streets. He sidles up at the hotel bar and hears someone order a whiskey cocktail. The barman throws everything he can find into a glass—syrup, fruit, absinthe, curacao. The whiskey in this whiskey cocktail is almost an afterthought.
He lifts up a hand, nods, and says, “that’s not for me, I want an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail instead” (eventually shortened to old-fashioned).
And that is how the Old Fashioned got its name: to distinguish the original from what a “whiskey cocktail” had come to be over time. For years following, endless variations and riffs have emerged and are very much enjoyed by all who dare.
But in a world being propelled forward at unprecedented speeds, you may feel at times it’s necessary to pause and return to something simple, something reliable, and maybe even a bit old fashioned.
The Heaven’s Door Old Fashioned Recipe
For a classic take, try Heaven’s Door’s own Old Fashioned recipe:
1.5oz Heaven’s Door Whiskey
Dash Angostura Bitters
1 Sugar Cube
Muddle sugar cube and bitters with one bar spoon of water.
Add bourbon and ice, then lightly stir.
Garnish with orange peel.