As with all classic cocktails, it is shrouded in mystery. Most people don't know the original recipe or where it came from, but the story goes that it was invented in the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky and it was popularised by a gentleman called James E. Pepper. His family actually distilled whiskey on the original site where the Woodford Reserve distillery sits today. The style of drink was referred to as "the old-fashioned whiskey cocktail", which is where the shortened name comes from. He later moved to New York and ended up drinking at the Waldorf Astoria, which was really where the old fashioned took flight. Then, during Prohibition, most of the bartenders associated with the rise in popularity of whiskey all moved to Europe, so American whiskey drinks and classic whiskey cocktails were popularised all throughout the continent.
The first mention of the word "cocktail" was in the Balance & Columbian Repository, an old farmers' journal, in 1803, and it was described as being water, sugar, spirit and bitters. And when you think about it, those are the sole parts of the old fashioned. It's been around for a long time, and it's probably the precursor to, and basis for, most classic cocktails. Any bartender worth their salt should be able to make a classic cocktail. That's where the reverence of classic drinks comes from – that there's a clear formula for them – and the old fashioned is one of the best formulas you could have.
Drinking an old fashioned is cool – nobody wants to be an estate agent; they want to be Don Draper
The reason the old fashioned has come back into vogue is that you can still enjoy the spirit, but the accents are pronounced because of the bitters, the orange peel and the dilution. Yes, it's strong, but it's also accessible to people. And drinking an old fashioned is cool – nobody wants to be an estate agent; they want to be Don Draper. It's the number one cocktail in the world at the moment, and the great thing for me is that as a result, people are enjoying American whiskey and they're enjoying bourbon.
It's the same as with American whiskey making, and specifically bourbon: if you don't start with good water, you can't make a good whiskey. So if you don't start with good ice, you're not making a good drink. You want the best-quality ice you can, because that's going to lead to better, or slower, dilution. When people say 'don't put too much ice in the drink', that's actually rubbish, because the more ice, the better thermodynamics you're going to have in the drink to keep it colder for longer, and the less dilution, so you can enjoy your spirit for longer without its flavours being diluted.
Beautiful ice is super easy to get nowadays: you can either buy it in crystal-clear chunks from different ice suppliers around London, or you can literally buy a bottle of clear water, stick it in the freezer, slice the plastic off and then hack it off with a hammer and chisel, and you'll get beautiful clear chunks. That's going to slow the dilution, it looks amazing, it's super impressive and it's also super easy. So good ice, and also good whiskey – obviously I can suggest one that I think is fantastic...
You can really have fun with an old fashioned. You can play around with the sugar dynamics – you can make sugar syrups at home using a 2:1 ratio of sugar and water, or you can sub out sugar syrups for other things. maple syrup's great, or agave syrup has a low GI index if you can't tolerate too much sugar. Then you can sub out your traditional Angostura bitters for chocolate bitters, aromatic bitters, orange bitters and more. and you can change over your citrus garnish, too, from orange to lemon and grapefruit. The template is safe – sugar, water, bitters, citrus – and you can do whatever you want within that.
You can even change the base spirit: when you use a different spirit, you take that spirit base and it brings something different to the table. Rum would give you these beautiful banana top notes and tropical-fruit flavours which are still evident in a bourbon but they're more pronounced in, let's say, a Jamaican pot-still rum. I like a scotch old fashioned, and even if you move around within the American whiskey category, a rye old fashioned is beautiful, too.
Find out more at woodfordreserve.com