A Short And Sweet History Of The Old-Fashioned

For most people, the old-fashioned is the bar standard, and it's been around a lot longer than Don Draper's 60s. In fact, bartender lore says the name comes from people ordering a cocktail the "old-fashioned" way. But just how old-fashioned is this drink?

Here's a short, sweet history of one of the world's greatest cocktails.


A book entitled Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks is published, giving instructions and recipes from the early days of bartending. This book contains a recipe for an Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail: "Crush a small lump of sugar in a whiskey glass containing a little water, add a lump of ice, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a small piece of lemon peel, one jigger Holland gin. Mix with small bar spoon. Serve."

While the drink has the namesake and similar elements of the modern old-fashioned, Thomas' recipe doesn’t call for whiskey and it’s never mentioned in any of the proceeding articles.


The story starts in Louisville, Kentucky. A 2005 article in The Courier-Journal gives credit to a private social club, called The Pendennis Club, for making the very first old-fashioned. James E. Pepper, bartender and esteemed bourbon aristocrat, was said to have invented the drink in Louisville, before he brought the recipe to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City. This is supposedly where the old-fashioned was born.

February 15, 1880

The Chicago Daily Tribune publishes an article announcing that Samuel Tilden, the 25th mayor of New York and former Democratic candidate for the U.S. Presidency has withdrawn from the United States Presidential election. In this article, the author mentions how Tilden’s withdrawal was met: “Hot-whiskies, Scotch and Irish, particularly the latter, sour-mashes, and old-fashioned cocktails were drank in honor of the event.”


Modern American Drinks, written by George Kappeler, is published in the U.S. and lists a plethora of recipes, one of which being for an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, reads as following: “Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece of ice, a piece of lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve, leaving spoon in glass." 

January 1, 1936

An article in the New York TImes, written by a man known only as “Old Timer,” reflects on the years following the end of Prohibition. In the piece, the man gives makeshift recipes for cocktails, including one for the Old Fashioned: “Consider, for instance, the Old-Fashioned cocktail. Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moisted a lump of sugar with Angostura bitter, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large or too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink.”

That's right, he was handed the whole goddamn bottle. Bartenders of today, take note.

Jeremy Glass is the Vice editor for Supercompressor and likes his whiskey like he likes his women: stuck in a barrel.