The Old-Fashioned’s name alone evokes a bygone era. Yet the mixture of whiskey, sweetener and bitters is seemingly impervious to change—a steadfast emblem in name and construction—of pre-Prohibition drink-making. But upon closer inspection, the drink is much more than a static relic. Like Darwin’s finches, the pared-down formula has evolved in various corners of the globe to meet its particular moment.
The drink’s most notorious (d)evolution saw the formula adulterated with heaps of muddled fruit and soda water during the drink’s nadir, but it’s the lesser-known regional renditions—some tweak the technique, others the ingredients—that make the Old-Fashioned family tree as broad as it is old. Of these many branches, several stand out for their contributions to the cocktail’s continued reign as the most iconic of them all.
Buenos Aires Old-Fashioned
More than the ingredients or ratios, the way an Old-Fashioned is made is often what distinguishes one style from another. Such is the case with the Buenos Aires Old-Fashioned. In the Argentine capital, bartenders can be seen throwing granulated sugar (or a sugar cube) and bitters into a rocks glass with a splash of water, then muddling those components into a paste. The back of a bar spoon is used to coat the inside of the glass with the slurry before adding an orange slice—also muddled—ice, whiskey and often a cherry on top. In a move that is decidedly, well, old-fashioned, this stylized serve frequently arrives with a demitasse spoon in a nod to the 19th-century tradition.
Like its Argentine brethren, the London-style Old-Fashioned sets itself apart in its particular preparation. Bitters and sugar are combined in the glass along with a portion of the whiskey and only a small portion of the ice. This mini Old-Fashioned is then stirred before the addition of another round of whiskey and ice, which is again stirred. Finally, the last of the whiskey and ice is thrown into the mix and stirred again. The whole process takes upwards of five minutes. The particular merits of this approach, which make for a more diluted take on the template, are a matter of ongoing debate, but according to the technique’s creator, Dick Bradsell, it “brings out the flavor of the drink.”
Unlike the boozy, austere original, the Wisconsin take on the Old-Fashioned is, as The Old-Fashioned author Robert Simonson describes it, “a lighter, sweeter affair.” The core ingredients—aged spirit, sugar, bitters—remain intact, but the default base is always brandy. To this unusual substitution is added a more unusual addition: soda. Not soda water, but actual soda, often 7Up if the drink is ordered “sweet,” or Squirt if it’s ordered “sour.” If it’s ordered “press,” it will arrive with a mixture of 7Up and seltzer. To round out the particularities of this variation, sometimes an olive is thrown in as a garnish. Though it’s a far cry from the more austere renditions that typically grace menus today, it’s further evidence of the Old-Fashioned’s infinite adaptability.