The Old-Fashioned, one of the world’s original cocktails, has been around so long that it has bred sub-genres of drinks that, while admitting parentage to the classic spirit-sugar-bitters-water formula, have their own set of rules. There’s the Wisconsin-style Old-Fashioned, which calls for domestic brandy instead of whiskey, a spritz of soda pop and curious garnishes. Then there’s the London-style Old-Fashioned, which is built slowly over several minutes and calls for a high level of dilution.
Even more obscure, but no less original, is the Buenos Aires-style Old-Fashioned. The chief way it distinguishes itself from its brethren is in its dispatching of sugar and bitters, which are mixed together with water into a sort of paste. This is then used to completely coat the inside of a rocks glass, the bartender swirling the mixture around the interior with a bar spoon until the vessel is nearly opaque. Into this bittersweet, red-tinged turret is thrown an orange slice, which is gently muddled at the bottom of the glass. Then comes ice, whiskey and, on top, a cherry. Sometimes confectioner’s sugar is use instead of regular sugar. And, in a nod to bygone 19th-century habits, the drink is frequently served with a small metal spoon in the glass.
How the Old-Fashioned came to be prepared in this peculiar way is, so far, a mystery. “I don’t know who was the first bartender who did this,” says Rodolfo Reich, a cocktail historian and journalist based in Buenos Aires, “but it’s sure all the great Argentinian bartenders from the golden age—1950 to 1970—were doing it. For example, Rodolfo San, Eugenio Gallo and Julio Celso Rey.”
Talk to any of the veteran bartenders in Buenos Aires, like Oscar Chabrés and Ariel Lombán, and the trail will often lead back to one of those three men. Chabrés worked for many years at the Claridge Hotel, long a center of old-school cocktail service in the city. He learned at the hand of Gallo, who ran the bar. Lombán, who has worked in the hospitality business since the late 1980s and first learned how to make an Old-Fashioned in the early 1990s, was schooled by San, among others.
But the name that comes up most often in connection to the proliferation of the style is Julio Celso Rey.
Rey “taught almost us all how to prepare the Old-Fashioned with the internal sugar crust,” says Federico Cuco, a bartender and amateur cocktail historian who owns Verne Cocktail Club. “I really do not know who was the first to do the Old-Fashioned in that way, but there is no doubt that Julio is responsible for that way of preparing this cocktail to continue.”
Born in Buenos Aires in 1920, Rey came to be known as the “King of the Long Drink,” in reference to a contest he won in 1973. From the early 1980s to his death in 1998—a period when a thirst for classic cocktails was waning in Argentina—he devoted himself to education, instructing dozens of young bartenders in their craft.
Inés De Los Santos, a prominent Buenos Aires bartender, took a gastronomy course with Rey in 1993. It was then that she was shown Rey’s unique rendition of the Old-Fashioned. “I completely fell in love with that cocktail,” she says.
When, years later, De Los Santos began to train bartenders herself, she followed the Rey method, perpetuating the style. She believed she was preparing the drink in the classical mode. It was only when she began to travel outside of Argentina that she realized that no other country in the world made the drink that way.
In Buenos Aires, meanwhile, De Los Santos’ Old-Fashioned approach was no handicap. By the 1990s, the drink had achieved preeminence as a major tool in any respectable city bartender’s drink kit. “Among the bartenders of my generation, the way you did your Old-Fashioned marked your quality,” says Cuco.
According to Cuco, when the Mundo Bizarro, the first bar to serve cocktails outside a hotel, opened in 1997, the Old-Fashioned was a specialty of the house. Unsurprisingly, the bar’s lineage could be traced back to the old mixology masters. Pablo Pignata, who owned it, learned his trade from Martin Rosberg, who learned from Ariel Lombán.
Efforts to trace the origins of the preparation have proven fruitless, leading only to the conclusion that it’s done that way because it’s always been done that way. But people have their hunches.
Lombán, now the head bartender at Los Galgos, a long-standing Buenos Aires café and bar, chalks it up to the Argentinian habit of interpreting drinks in their own manner. He cites the San Martin cocktail, a popular South American mix of dry gin, sweet vermouth and bitters that he regards as an Argentinian spin on the Martini. With the Old-Fashioned, Argentinians are simply making the drink the way they make every drink: “Our way.”
With the rise of the internet and the resultant homogenization of cocktail techniques, there was, and still is, the danger that the Buenos Aires Old-Fashioned might fade away. But the city’s bartenders appear to have recognized the style as something all their own and have persevered.
“Many question the old ways of Buenos Aires, but I just teach bartenders this way because I think it has its charm,” says Cuco. “Obviously, if a gringo comes in, I have a 2:1 simple syrup bottle. But if I have a chance to chat, I offer the Buenos Aires way.”
Tip: If you find yourself in Buenos Aires and want to sample the local riff on the Old-Fashioned, Reich recommends Doppelgänger, Bar 878, Wherever Bar and Faraday.