There was once a drink called a “cocktail.” So simple was it that back in 1806 it was defined as a mix of “spirits, sugar, water, and bitters.” By today’s rather ambiguous interpretation of the term—which could include anything from a Vieux Carré to a Chocolate-Marshmallow-Cronut-Tini—that’s a pretty rudimentary sounding concoction. Everyone seemed okay with that.
At the time, around the mid 1800s, there was a “Whiskey Cocktail,” a “Gin Cocktail,” a “Brandy Cocktail” and so on. If you wanted it “fancy,” the bewhiskered barkeep would have broken a lemon twist over the top. Fancy, indeed. The sweetener would have been rasped off a large block of what was known as “loaf” sugar and the ice would have been chiseled from a large block, like is de rigueur today.
Somewhere along the way, however, the Whiskey Cocktail went from being a mixed drink of the highest order to a laughing stock amongst its antiquated brethren. Neon red cherries doused in formaldehyde and who knows what else found their way into the drink’s eponymous receptacle, along with a superfluous piece of orange, then perhaps blasphemously charged with Sprite if you live in Wisconsin. Yes, you read that correctly.
As Robert Simonson, drinks writer for The New York Times, points out in his new book, The Old Fashioned, solely dedicated to this august libation, “Once an austere, perfectly balanced assemblage of whiskey, bitters, sugar and water—a cocktail in its most elemental—it had taken on several decades worth of baggage. Citizens who came of drinking age around the turn of the new millennium would have been hard pressed to understand why intellectual leaders of the last century had taken time out of their day to signal praise for what seemed an exceedingly silly, unsophisticated drink,”