(NEXSTAR) – Making an Old Fashioned isn’t difficult. You only need a few ingredients, unlike some of the more complicated cocktails on the market. Depending on your bartender, and what state you’re in, what your Old Fashioned looks like may be a bit different.
The history of the whiskey cocktail is a little muddled but many agree its roots reach into the late 1800s.
The first printed reference to the drink is said to date back to 1862 when a recipe for an “Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail” was included in “Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks.” The recipe called for mixologists to crush a small lump of sugar in a whiskey glass with a little water, according to Thrillist. Then, “add a lump of ice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a small piece of lemon peel, one jigger Holland gin.” The drink was to be mixed, then served.
Despite Thomas’ recipe, others say Louisville, Kentucky is the birthplace of the Old Fashioned. As the story goes, in 1881, bartender Col. James E. Pepper was working at the still-active Pendennis Club when a customer asked for a cocktail without bourbon. Being in Bourbon Country, Pepper didn’t want to do that, so he made a bourbon Old Fashioned.
Pepper would later bring the cocktail to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Yet it was Louisville that made the Old Fashioned the city’s official cocktail in 2015. Pepper’s recipe called for Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup, a half-slice of orange, a cherry (with the stem), a lemon twist, and two dashes of Angostura bitters.
In case you haven’t been keeping track, that marks two different recipes, with two different alcohols: gin and bourbon. A third recipe introduced a third base: whiskey.
Really, bourbon is whiskey. Whiskey is a spirit made from fermented grain that usually ages in wood containers. While whiskey can be made from any grain, bourbon must be at least 51% corn, according to the American Bourbon Association.
Technicalities aside, in 1895, another Old Fashioned recipe appeared on the scene. In his book “Modern American Drinks,” author George Kappeler includes instructions on how to make an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail. It was essentially Thomas’ recipe, but Kappeler replaced the Holland gin with whiskey.
It doesn’t stop there, though. While the aforementioned Old Fashioned recipes relied on grain-based alcohols, bartenders primarily in one state depend on a different liquor: brandy.
If you find yourself at a bar in Wisconsin ordering an Old Fashioned, it’s very likely you’ll receive one of brandy, which is made from fermented fruit like grapes. Your cocktail will also probably be muddled with a slice of orange and boozy cherries. You’ll also have to make a decision: do you want your Old Fashioned to be sour (with a splash of Sprite or something similar) or sweet (with a splash of soda water)?
Why is Wisconsin so different? A bartender may tell you a couple of reasons. Some point to the 1893 World’s Fair, when California’s Korbel brothers brought their brandy to Chicago and gave away free samples to visitors. Many of them may have been from Wisconsin, considering the proximity, and of German descent, where brandy was popular, Fodor’s Travel explains.
Another common tale says brandy became so popular in the Badger State out of necessity. In her book “Wisconsin Cocktails,” Jeanette Hurt explained that when whiskey and other spirits became harder to find during World War II, brandy was still widely available.
Though its name may imply a certain simplicity, you may not have the same Old Fashioned twice, depending on your bartender. The International Bartenders Association calls for bourbon or rye whiskey. The American Bartenders School doesn’t even have a recipe for an Old Fashioned on its list of 500 drink recipes.
And if deciding between base alcohol wasn’t hard enough, you may also find yourself having to select a garnish. Oranges are common, appearing as a slice, wedge, peel, or zest. Some recipes suggest a lemon for garnish instead, as Thomas recommended in the 1860s. Others may also call for cherries but that brings up another controversy with the classic cocktail: to muddle or not to muddle.
As mentioned above, it’s common practice among Wisconsin bartenders to muddle the ingredients in an Old Fashioned. Recipes on Taste of Home and Drink Wisconsibly say to muddle an orange slice, cherry (or cherries), bitters, and sugar cube in a rocks glass before adding ice, brandy, and whichever is needed for the sour or sweet variation. Even Louisville calls for muddling in the drink.
Liqour.com warns against muddling, saying the Old Fashioned isn’t “a drink that needs a bold punch of cherry flavor or fruit floating around.” Other mixology blogs also advise against muddling to prevent floating fruit pieces.
Regardless of your alcohol base, choice of garnish, or muddling (or not muddling), the Old Fashioned is one of the most popular cocktails in the world — for seven straight years, it was ranked as the best-selling classic cocktail in the world by Drinks International before falling short to the Negroni in 2022.