It didn’t take much for The New York Times spirits writer Robert Simonson to fall in love with the sazerac — all he needed was a first visit to New Orleans in 2006. It took a little bit longer for him to embrace the old-fashioned. “The old-fashioned used to show up as whiskey with some cheap ice in it, muddled orange and cherry, and maybe even a little soda water on top,” he explains. “It was kind of watery, kind of sloppy, and not very precise. You sort of understood why your parents and grandparents drank it, and you didn’t — it wasn’t a very cool drink.”
It was only in 2008, when Simonson began seeing more old-fashioneds on menus across town, that he gave the cocktail another chance. “I liked it a lot more than anything my mother ever drank,” he says. His new drink order prompted a serious interest in the history and evolution of the classic, and on May 12, he released The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore (Ten Speed Press, $18.99), a detailed and chronological account of the cocktail in its classic form (made with whiskey, sugar, bitters, and water), along with a generous nod to the variations that have been keeping modern day bartenders busy.
Here, we chat with Simonson about the drink’s underdog appeal, why drinking history matters, and why old-fashioned advocates should be thanking the ladies.
How long did the research for this book take, and what was the process like?
The research process was about six months long. I started with old cocktail books — I know a couple people who have great collections of out-of-print cocktail books. The drink is originally called an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail, and even earlier on, it was a whiskey cocktail, so I started finding the books that had a recipe for any of those names, then just transcribing the recipes and putting them into a chronological order so I could get an idea for how the cocktail had changed over the decades and centuries. Sometimes I’d find a sentence or two or a paragraph about the drink in these books, which gave an idea of what people thought of the drink at the time these books were published.
I interviewed some people who worked in bars in the ’50s and ’60s, including Dale DeGroff and Brian Rea, to get an idea of how old-fashioneds were consumed back then, and how they had changed.
I started looking in archives for old newspapers for any mention I could find of any whiskey cocktail, old-fashioned or just plain whiskey. The Brooklyn Eagle was very helpful in that respect, as was The Baltimore Sun, The New York Sun, and the Chicago papers. I also looked at old menus to see when restaurants, train cars, or hotels started to offer this cocktail, and how much it was.
What did you discover about the price of it?
Very often, the old-fashioned was the most expensive cocktail. This might have been because it did use two ounces of whiskey, but it could also show perhaps that people were willing to pay a little bit more for it because they liked it so much.
What was the goal for the book?
In the first section of the book, I cite all of these people who mention the old-fashioned as being one of the great drinks. I wanted to show what they meant and why they were right in saying that because I don’t think there’s anybody, even with a cursory knowledge of liquor and drinking and cocktails today, who questions the supremacy of something like the martini — it’s obviously a great cocktail and great work of culinary art. Even with the mixologists rediscovering the old-fashioned, it still wasn’t getting its due, and it didn’t seem right. It’s an older drink, it’s as wonderful a drink, and nobody had ever written a book about it — there have been 12 books about martinis. I just wanted to make sure it got its due as this lovely liquid creation that America gave to the world.
In creating this book, what surprised you the most?
I was surprised by how popular the drink was with women after Prohibition. When Prohibition ended, it was a big story. Every editor sent out a reporter, telling them to go to the hotels, go to the bars, and to find out how they’re preparing drinks and what they’re going to be putting on their menus — and then go back the next day and find out what they sold. In all of those cases, the old-fashioned was remembered, it was put on the menu, it sold well, and women were buying it — and I thought that was fascinating. At that point, women could begin to drink in public because of the whole speakeasy thing. In speakeasies they drank side by side with the men, so it was no longer taboo for them to go to a bar. And they liked those old-fashioneds. I think they did their part in making the drink come back with a roar after Prohibition.
Why is it important for people to understand the history of a cocktail?
America can’t really lay claim to too many things that it invented all by itself. We’re very good at borrowing ideas from the Old World, reinventing them, and making them our own. But we’ve done a few things — musical theatre, jazz — and I think we should be proud of the cocktail. We created it. England had punch, which is basically a large format cocktail. But we’re an individualistic society, and we came up with the idea that we wanted our own punch, that’s “just for me,” and that’s the cocktail. It took about 50 years before cocktail bars started opening in Europe. They saw that we came up with a good idea, and I think it’s something to be proud of. I don’t want to get too serious or pretentious about it — after all, it’s cocktails. But either it’s a valuable thing or it isn’t, and I don’t think it’s frivolous. It was certainly designed to inform your good time, but that doesn’t mean it’s a silly thing.
Which aligns with what your mother, to whom you dedicated the book, says about her experience with the old-fashioned: “I never treated it as just a cocktail.”
It was a social tool, most definitely. I guess it also said a little something about you, what you chose to drink. I suppose it still works that way.
In the book, you divide the recipes into three categories: old school, the standard variations, and modern classics. What was the motivation behind doing so?
With the modern classics, I wanted to show what today’s bartenders were doing with the old-fashioned model and how they were using their imagination. With the standard variations, I wanted to show that though the old-fashioned is a cocktail, it’s also a blueprint for which you can basically sub in any spirit, and it works. We see a lot of rum old-fashioneds and applejack old-fashioneds on menus today, but this isn’t new — they were serving these before Prohibition. The old school ones are strictly for the cocktail geeks; for people who are like, “I wonder how they drank old-fashioneds in 1888 — let’s try this recipe.” It’s kind of fun to go through that little time portal.
Can you give us a brief history of the old-fashioned, from its inception to today?
In the 1880s and 1890s, it was hugely popular; after WWII, it was hugely popular; and now, it’s hugely popular again. I think we’re at a nice place now, where you can visit a cocktail bar, order an old-fashioned, and the bartender will know how to make it in its classic form. But somewhere on that menu there’s a variation on it, too — so you can satisfy your purist inclinations, then you can move onto your curiosity. People ask me all the time, “Are you upset about all of the new variations of the old-fashioned?” And I’m like, “No! As long as people don’t forget to make the old one.”