The Old Fashioned: a product of place

Think of Kentucky and your mind might leap to bourbon. But what about the Old Fashioned? A ‘cocktail in the old fashioned style’ went on to define what all mixed drinks have in common: Joel Harrison stirs together a short history

Words by Joel Harrison

Kentucky bourbon whiskey, sugar, water and bitters: the Old Fashioned's simple recipe

‘I’ve never met a mirror I didn’t like’, or so the phrase goes. Despite the haughty nature of this motto, I believe this to be the truest reflection (if you excuse the pun) of alcoholic drinks there ever was.

This is because most drinks – brewed, fermented, or distilled – are a product of their place. Along with art and literature, beverages are brilliant ambassadors for culture and society; a message in a bottle, encompassing history and heritage, people and purpose.

Find yourself anywhere in the world, and Irish whiskey will often transport you back to Dublin’s Temple Bar district, the ‘craic’ alive in a simple pour of spirit. The same is true with a good Mezcal. Sip on one, and you find yourself, like Dr Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, landing slap-bang in the middle of Oaxaca.

It is not just the drinks themselves which say so much about their location of origin; the occasions and styles in which they are served speak volumes too. Take grappa, for instance. Not a drink to everyone’s liking, it comes to life post-Italian lunch, poured into an espresso coffee for a ‘caffè corretto’, where suddenly a lightbulb moment happens and the drink makes sense.

Bourbon is matured in brand-new American oak casks – a must-have, by law

The same could be said of the much underrated Pineau des Charentes. A drink made – like grappa – by those involved in wine-making, it is served as an aperitif, especially when visiting the Cognac region. As a kick-starter to a rich French lunch, it not only enhances the dining experience but confirms it as positively French, a time to stop work and spend in conversation with others. When you spend time like this, you are left with no doubt that ‘conviviality’ is not just a French word, it is a religion; restaurants its church, food and drink its doctrine.

However, of all the drinks which fly the flag for their location best, Kentucky bourbon has a strong claim. Although bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, the state of Kentucky is synonymous with this style of whiskey, becoming the premier state for America’s foremost spirit.

In other styles of whisky, the base cereal is a key tell to the history of where it is made. Scotch single malt draws on barley, which grows richly and freely in the country. Irish whiskey melds malted and unmalted barley, a nod to a political tête-à-tête over taxation with the British government.

Bourbon whiskey must have a minimum of 50% of corn in its recipe

Kentucky bourbon, on the other hand, prides itself on a mixed ‘mash bill’ of grains, all of which have traditionally been harvested in the state. The foundations of bourbon are built on corn, and legally this whiskey must have a minimum of 50 per cent of this creamy cereal in each recipe. Wheat can be added, and a portion of rye brings spicy notes. A small amount of malted barley is used too for better brewing. Already this is a tapestry of ingredients, utterly apt for a state which has woven together settlers from across Europe and beyond.

The spirit, once distilled, is then matured in brand-new American oak casks, another legal must-have. New casks are highly active and impart a strong-yet-smooth personality into Kentucky bourbon whiskey – not unlike Kentucky’s other most famous son, Mr George Clooney.

And it doesn’t stop at whiskey either, for Kentucky is the true home, the real genesis, of the cocktail.

Firstly, the name itself: cocktail. No one quite knows the true origin of the word, but there is one theory that links it indelibly with the Blue Grass State, and that is via Kentucky’s other great exports: horse racing and stallion breeding. It was said that a true thoroughbred horse would have a long, flowing tail. But one which was the result of mixed breeding would have its tail cut short, or ‘cocked’. These ‘cock-tail’ horses were therefore marked out as being ‘mixed’, and thus the term was transferred over to mixed drinks, too.

An Old Fashioned is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is history in a glass

It remains to be seen if this story is true, and we’ll probably never know, but it does tie in nicely with another great Kentucky invention, the Old Fashioned. This classic cocktail was around long before it was reputedly invented at the Pendennis Club in Lexington, Kentucky. It was, however, made famous across the United States when ordered by Kentuckian Col. James E. Pepper, at the Old Waldorf hotel in New York City, in the late 1800s.

The drink, a ‘cocktail in the old fashioned style’, went on to define what a mixed drink or cocktail is: a combination of a distilled spirit (in this case Kentucky bourbon whiskey), sugar, water and bitters. A definition that still stands to this day.

An Old Fashioned is so much more than the sum of its parts. It is history in a glass. And bourbon is so much more than a drink. It is a culture and community distilled; a real reflection of a place, captured in a bottle.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • Despite the job of being a drinks writer, I don’t drink every day. What I really enjoy are the couple of dry days I have each week. Drinking just water can get very boring indeed, and I love exploring the world of low- and no-alcohol beers. My new fave is the un-ironically named Asahi ‘Super Dry’, which delivers all the refreshing notes of a lager, with no alcohol.
  • My whisky pick for the month has to be an utter delight of a dram from a new series of whiskies released by The Whisky Exchange to celebrate founders Rajbir and Sukhinder Singh’s 50-year family involvement in drinks. The series of five bottles, including a 1971 50-year-old Speyside blended malt, are all brilliant. The particular star of the show, and one of the best whiskies I’ve had in a very long time, is the Ardbeg 22-year-old release. Soft, smoky, buttery and moreish, it is a spankingly good dram.
  • Finally, my cocktail of the season – as the evenings lengthen and we finally get some warm sunshine on our skin – is the ‘Bee’s Knees’. Quick and easy to make, simply add two tablespoons of runny honey into a shaker, and loosen it with a little hot water. Add in 25ml of gin, the same of lemon juice and again of orange juice. Shake with ice, and strain into a coupe. A brilliant way to embrace spring.
Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.