Cocktail expert and blogger the Mixolosopher looks at the history of the Old Fashioned and provides some of the best places to get this classic cocktail.

The Old Fashioned

Classic cocktails have a certain tenacity, managing to endure despite the ebbs and flows of trend and taste. One of the most revered classics is the Old Fashioned – a drink so deceitfully simple on paper that it has influenced many professional bartenders to put progressively outlandish spins on it.

Here at The Scotsman we wanted to provide you with a brief introduction to The Old
Fashioned and flag up some Auld Reekie bars that are taking this quintessential
concoction to the next level.

It is International Old Fashioned Week, after all.

The First Cocktail

Back in the murky, candlelit past of the mixed drink there were precious few
ingredients with which to play.

Many concoctions were essentially riffs and variations on one another, separated by slight tweaks in amounts, methods or additives and often prepared in voluminous bowls for sharing out at gatherings.

The gradual evolution of the bartender’s trade saw more and more drinks being made to order and several ‘families’ of mixed drink emerged.

One such family was the Cocktail, whose name has many possible origins but more than likely came from mixed breed horses (and possibly the dubious practice of ‘gingering up’ – the insertion of fresh root ginger into a horse’s posterior to cause it to ‘cock its tail’ and seem perkier).

A Cocktail in its early form was a mixture of spirit, sugar, water and – crucially – aromatic bitters, usually taken as a morning pick-me-up.

Mention of the Cocktail as a drink was first made in print at the turn of the 1800s and, by 1862, the
Cocktail was listed alongside other families of mixed drink such as the Sour, the Julep, the Daisy and the Collins in the first book of its kind: The Bon Vivant’s Companion by Jerry Thomas.

A generation or two later saw a whole deluge of vermouths, liqueurs and other such fancifications become available to the professional bartender, resulting in ever more elaborate concoctions.

As mixed drinks became more complicated, so those who craved the modesty of earlier iterations would ask for one ‘the old-fashioned way’ and the name stuck.

Simple Yet Complex

So why the lingering love affair with such a seemingly modest drink? For one, the Old Fashioned is a true original; though its name may have changed since its birth as the Whiskey Cocktail, its status as one of the primordial mixed drinks gives it a considerable nobility.

This, as well as its sheer age, means that even its most unadulterated form has gained a host of personal preferences over the years.

The meagre ingredient list of whisky, sugar, bitters and ice also suggests it’s a doddle to make but, just as anyone who has tried baking a loaf of bread will tell you, there’s an awful lot more to it than just chucking everything together and mixing it up.

Mastering the Old Fashioned is a genuine achievement and, rather like producing a perfect ‘mother sauce’, it can become the jumping-off point for all kinds of new creations.

Here are a few to experience around Edinburgh.

Old Fashioned

Picture: Mixolosopher

The Printing Press on George Street have sought to honour the 30th anniversary of Ian Rankin’s Rebus books with a batch-produced twist incorporating Highland Park single malt.

Monteith’s in the Old Town have a brace of variations on offer; the Old Fashioned Rockpool combines Bowmore Darkest, liquorice bitters, twelve-year- old Calvados and seaweed mist and their Rum ‘n’ Raisin Old Fashioned mixes Mount Gay Black Barrel, PX sherry, fig
liqueur and cinnamon.

Usquabae in Edinburgh’s West End provides a triple tipple whammy of variations using three of Wemyss’ blended malts, each cocktail tailored to the style of spirit used.

And around the corner in SYGN, you can order a Cacao Old Fashioned – Jim Beam infused with cocoa nibs and stirred with maple syrup and a dash of Fernet Branca

Michael Neave Kitchen & Whisky Bar, tucked away off the Royal Mile, has two Scotch-based riffs; Thyme Well Spent accentuates Aberfeldy single malt with the delicate aromas of rhubarb and
thyme, while The Old Blackened is a heady mix of Ardbeg 10 year old, cider syrup and walnut bitters.

Checkpoint on Bristo Place have paired Glenfiddich 15 Solera with a spiced fig and vanilla syrup, plum and rootbeer bitters and a drop of saltwater in the beguilingly named Winsome Whet.

Finally, if you’re heading Stockbridge-ward, pop in to new opening Chameleon on Howe
Street and try their Tonka Trace – a mélange of Buffalo Trace bourbon, house-made tonka bean treacle, orange bitters, chocolate bitters and a few friable crystals of sea salt.

About The Author

Iain Meldrum

Iain Meldrum (aka Mixolosopher) has over a decade of experience at the top of the drinks industry as both a bartender and trainer. He is passionate about all things alcoholic - though in a responsible and philosophical way, of course.

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