As its name suggests, the Old-Fashioned has long been a representation of a bygone era. “The Old-Fashioned was a drinker’s plea for a saner, quieter, slower life,” writes David Wondrich in Imbibe! Its name harks back to this very plea for simplicity—before the modern, adulterated cocktails of the 1890s, which had abandoned the definitive cocktail construction of spirit, bitters, sugar and water with the unsanctioned additions of Chartreuse, maraschino, vermouth and other modifiers. The Old-Fashioned’s relative simplicity, meanwhile, is what has allowed it to endure for generations.
But even at the turn of the 20th century, bartenders couldn’t resist dressing up the pared-down recipe. In 1904, New York bartender Tommy Lane was serving his Old-Fashioneds with a slice of orange and lemon. In 1917, another New York bartender, Hugo Ensslin, stretched the formula even further, splitting the whiskey base with Dubonnet and relying on a barspoon of Curaçao to serve as the sweetener. A cornucopia of garnishes, including an orange slice, a pineapple slice and a lemon twist, likely contributed to the drink’s name: The Old-Fashioned Appetizer.
Modern interpretations of the template don’t always go quite so far. Greg Best’s In Fashion, for example, would satisfy most purists with its tried-and-true combination of 12-year-old bourbon, cane sugar syrup and Angostura bitters. To this he adds only a few dashes of orange bitters and an unorthodox barspoon of mezcal floated over the top of the drink. Sother Teague’s Frangelico Old-Fashioned is likewise not a far departure from the traditional formula, but the Amor y Amargo bartender leans on the hazelnut liqueur as the sweetener, complementing the cinnamon notes of Angostura bitters.
Sticking with a whiskey base, both Tom Walker and Isaac Shumway opt for Scotch rather than bourbon or rye. Modified with a quarter-ounce of yellow Chartreuse, Walker’s Nova Scotia reads like an Old-Fashioned crossed with an Alaska, while Shumway’s Old Grampian calls on two types of Scotch, sweetened with honey and finished with orange bitters in addition to the usual Angostura. Honey is the sweetener of choice for Parker Luthman, too, who pairs it with gochujang in a syrup for his K-O.F., which also gets a splash of pineapple rum alongside the expected whiskey base.
Though it may seem like a departure from the original Old-Fashioned, there’s historic precedent to the ongoing personalization of the template. As journalist Leander Richardson noted in 1866, “In the regular line of drinks coming under this name, every bartender seems to have established his own private brand.”