The Old Fashioned: a savory whiskey-based blend that has earned its spot as one of the cornerstones of the cocktail menu. With a spirited history and sterling reputation among most cocktail drinkers, the Old Fashioned remains a versatile concoction ideal for any occasion. The name of the drink was even linked to the original idea of the cocktail, even though it wasn’t exclusive to whiskey in the early days.
With that type of history and reputation, creating the perfect Old Fashioned is an art form. And while many bartenders claim to have mastered the blend, there’s also been a rise in ready-to-drink canned versions that aim to replicate the taste that has captivated drinkers for generations. But can a canned Old Fashioned cocktail really be good enough to live up to the tradition?
While hasty imitations will never do, carefully crafted canned Old Fashioneds can pack the same punch that cocktail drinkers have enjoyed since the 19th century. Here’s a brief history of the Old Fashioned and how today’s best canned Old Fashioneds pay homage to one of the greatest cocktails of all time.
The History that Paved the Way for the Canned Old Fashioned Cocktail
The early 1800s were pioneering days for cocktails. Even though liquor-based drinks had been around for many centuries at that point, the first half of the 19th century was when we started to see more sophisticated cocktail blends appear in American pubs and taverns. As one article notes, “…before the Old-Fashioned became what we know it as today, a period of terminology had to evolve.” Indeed, as far back as 1806, patrons were referring to a cocktail: a flexible blend of whatever liquor and spirits that a barkeep had on hand. As the meaning evolved, the Old Fashioned took shape.
While whiskey was certainly a part of the equation even then, an Old Fashioned was just as likely to have rum or gin as a base for the earliest versions of the drink. The whiskey-based Old Fashioned we know and love today was likely born in a social club in Louisville before making the rounds. By the late 19th century, a true Old-Fashioned could only mean one thing: a proper (bourbon) whiskey cocktail that just about any bartender could whip together on short notice.
Flourishing Through Good Times and Bad
Laid out in print for the first time, George Kappeler’s 1895 version would take the Old Fashioned trend to a new level of popularity. His version called for a jigger of whiskey along with a lemon peel, bitters, and sugar – the essential building blocks still in place today. By the mid-1930s, the drink was a watering hole fixture associated with an independent spirit.
As the country emerged from Prohibition and eventually the Depression, the Old Fashioned took on additional meaning to the cocktail drinker. By the time Don Draper of Mad Men fame was habitually ordering them in the fictionalized 1960s, the drink was the perfect testament to American endurance. After persevering through depression and war – ala Draper himself – the Old Fashioned of the 1960s reflected the grit it took to get through tougher times and into the modern era.
By the boom days of the 1950s and 1960s, the Old Fashioned had fully transformed into a classic. And as American culture rapidly spread throughout the world during this period, Old Fashioneds were popping up in the hands of whiskey drinkers in all corners of the globe.
The Rebound of the Old Fashioned
Following a dip in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s (there was a disco drink phase), cocktail drinkers returned to their senses in the 1990s and rediscovered the Old Fashioned. The most popular versions in the 1990s were throwbacks to the previous century, bringing bartenders back to the basic concoction first served in bars and taverns.
While cocktails in general enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in this period, the Old Fashioned became a mainstay. That said, how to make a proper Old Fashioned is still a highly debated topic. There are three main schools of thought:
- The mid-century version: Muddled orange and cherry and sugar, a splash of soda, and bourbon—this is the version most commonly referenced in Mad Men.
- The Wisconsin Old Fashioned: Made with brandy instead of bourbon. Sometimes this has the muddled orange/cherry.
- The original (and now modern) version: Bourbon, bitters, sugar (either cube, syrup, etc.). Stirred to dilute properly, garnished with orange or lemon peel and a maraschino cherry (if desired).
While the traditional muddled version and the brandy-based Wisconsin Old Fashioned have their loyal fans, the modern interpretation of the original recipe may be the best way to savor this iconic cocktail, simplifying the recipe and achieving the ideal balance of sweetness and bold flavors of the bourbon.
Canned Old Fashioneds Have Changed the Game
These days, most bartenders have the basic Old Fashioned setup down, though the type of ingredients is only a starting point. While some bars go all the way with top-tier whiskey and authentic ingredients that complement each other, others cut corners and try to get by with pre-made mixes or an abundance of sugar.
The same can be said of canned Old Fashioneds. Some canned versions are content with accelerated-aged or young whiskey, artificial ingredients and bitters, and “natural” flavors, generating only some of the flavor of the original and exchanging quality for expediency. You can’t fake good whiskey, and this has led some to wonder whether a canned Old Fashioned cocktail can truly live up to its namesake.
Yet other canned versions have taken up the challenge. More discerning drinkers can now find canned Old Fashioneds that start with high-grade bourbon pulled straight from the barrel, aged 3-4 years before it’s mixed into the perfect cocktail and complemented by the most authentic ingredients.
Among those ingredients is quality bitters, which can be the most underrated component of many cocktails—including an Old Fashioned. Due to their versatility and ability to offset strong flavors, bitters have become a bartending essential. Beyond high-grade bitter blends, authentic orange zest and premium syrups can elevate the canned Old Fashioned experience and bring you back to the drink’s roots. Combine these ingredients with bar-standard proportions, and you have a canned cocktail that rivals what you’ll find on any trip to the local bar.
Tips for Enhancing a Canned Old Fashioned
Because making an Old Fashioned can require a fair amount of technique and effort, canned options allow hosts to focus their attention elsewhere while preparing to host a gathering, saving them both time and mess. Serving up the best canned cocktails keeps everything upscale yet simple, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add your own flair. Here are some tips that can complement a canned Old Fashioned cocktail:
- Use the correct ice. Once you’ve found a canned Old Fashioned with real ingredients that are perfectly proportioned, the right ice can be more than an afterthought. One pro trick is to place your ice mold in a cooler and then put it in the freezer, keeping the cooler lid off. This is a simple way to use directional freezing, yielding crystal-clear ice that will be the perfect base for your cocktail. Using filtered or distilled water is a must.
- Choose the right glass to complete the look. Choose the right glass to complete the bar-quality effect. You certainly can spend a lot of money on fancy glassware, but a classic option like a well-crafted double rocks glass (also called a double Old-Fashioned) should be all you need.
- Add a fresh citrus peel. Whether you’re fixing a cocktail for a guest or yourself, a freshly cut orange or lemon peel can be the perfect final touch to tie it all together.
A Cocktail Party with the Right Food Pairing
Any cocktail can be enhanced with the right food pairings, especially a versatile cocktail like an Old Fashioned. A bacon-wrapped fig can be the perfect appetizer for a southern twist, true to the Old Fashioned’s Kentucky roots. At dinner parties, a thick cut of balsamic-infused pork chop balances out the Old Fashioned’s sweetness.
As some foodies note, bourbon also goes very well with a variety of barbeque favorites. For those planning a cookout, pork tenderloin or BBQ chicken wings can be excellent complements to an Old Fashioned. Meanwhile, pairing an Old Fashioned with an upgraded version of mac and cheese—like short rib mac and cheese—is another option that can make an impression. And you can’t go wrong when combining your bar-quality canned Old Fashioned cocktail with a high-quality cheese, like pimento or aged gouda.
Those looking for a fancier pairing have some exciting options as well. One possibility endorsed by food experts is to pair an Old Fashioned with a creamy soup like a lobster bisque, which balances out the bitters and citrus flavor.
From casual get-togethers to dinner parties and home happy hours, an Old Fashioned cocktail and a touch of culinary foresight can create the perfect match.
Enjoy an Old Fashioned from Anywhere
The original whiskey cocktail, which later became the Old Fashioned we know today, was not only found in a bar. The earliest drinkers would bring their concoctions to any occasion in need of elevation. The first cocktail lovers would share them in the streets in celebration or make their own in their homes and drink in camaraderie, in times both sweet and sour. Although the drink has gone through many manifestations, the Old Fashioned remains a go-to for a reason.
Today’s Old Fashioned enthusiasts have the same opportunity to bring the classic drink to wherever the party is found. Although not every canned Old Fashioned is cut from the same cloth, premium canned options are every bit as focused on quality as the bartenders who brought it into the modern cocktail era.
At Post Meridiem Cocktails, we’re committed to the details that made cocktails great in the first place. 100% real ingredients at the proper proportions with no compromises. The result is a bar-quality cocktail in every pour. Our Double Old Fashioned pays tribute to the original with a classic mix backed by straight bourbon whiskey. Peruse our cocktail lineup and find your new favorite cocktail today.