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On the Trail of the Old Fashioned, Through Wisconsin and Upstate New York

As a cocktail week special, Robert Sietsema chronicles the history of the old fashioned, from its 19th century origins to its place in Wisconsin supper clubs and the modern-day iterations found in NYC.

Old fashioneds at Woodbines in Long Island City
Old fashioneds at Woodbines in Long Island City
All photos by Robert Sietsema

The old fashioned may be the world's first cocktail. The earliest print reference occurs in 1806 in a magazine published in Hudson, New York, called by its original name of Bittered Sling. This "cock tail" was probably made from rye whiskey (virtually the only kind available at the time); it also contained bitters, sugar, and water. Later, a twist of citrus peel became common. By 1833 the concoction was pandemic in New York City bars. But by then the liquor of choice could also be brandy, rum, or even gin — sometimes grated nutmeg was added as a flavoring. New York City's premiere bartender, Jerry Thomas, published his recipe calling it Whiskey Cocktail in 1862, using Boker's bitters and a sugar solution thickened with gum arabic, very science-cheffy. He added a twist of lemon peel after straining the drink into a wine glass. No ice!

After the Civil War, further extraneous ingredients like liqueurs were added to the drink, as the Whiskey Cocktail became a dumping ground for any new kind of booze or bitters that the newly named "mixologists" cared to incorporate. This recipe sprawl led to the rediscovery of the original cocktail around 1880s, re-dubbed "old fashioned" when the simpler and older recipe was used. At this point in time, corn-based bourbon whiskey had replaced rye as the predominant brown spirit, becoming the standard for the drink.

But the history of the drink may be even more muddled. In his book The Old Fashioned (2013), Albert W. A. Schmid repeats the theory that the modern old fashioned was invented at Louisville's Pendennis Club sometime in 1881, but then goes on to recount how cocktail historian David Wondrich has exploded this myth by demonstrating the Chicago Tribune mentioned it a year earlier. Retrenching, Schmid goes on to assert that the Pendennis Club's was the first one utilizing fruit. The first version incorporating both a cherry and orange zest (a recipe common today) was first published in New Orleans in La Cuisine Creole (1885), by Lafcadio Hearn, a writer of Greek birth better known by his Japanese pen name, Koizumi Yakumo. The plot thickens!

However the cocktail came to be, it is considered one of the earliest and foremost, with the only real competition to its hegemony provided by the martini and the manhattan. Wondrich offers colorful praise in Esquire Drinks (2002): "One of the immortals: strong, square-jawed, with just enough civilization to keep you from hollerin' like a mountain-jack." (I asked Wondrich what a mountain-jack was, and he replied, "A mountain-jack is a hillbilly, basically. ‘Holler like a mountain-jack' is from a blues line."). In his exhaustively researched The Old-Fashioned (2014), Robert Simonson writes what amounts to a poetic ode to the two-hundred-year-old tipple: "Here is a drink where both the flavor and color of the base spirit shines....This is a drink to be lingered over, a drink made for contemplation."

NYC old fashioneds

New York City old fashioneds, clockwise from upper left: Bar Bolonat, The Cannibal/Gotham West, Daddy-O's, Empire Diner, Lincoln Center Kitchen, Le Cheile

The modern resurgence of interest in the old fashioned, of course, may be partly credited to Don Draper of Mad Men, for whom it was ostentatiously his favorite cocktail. Nowadays, the beverage is prominently featured either in basic or in dolled-up form at many of this city's top bars and restaurants. For the most basic and reverent version just rye or bourbon, sugar, bitters, and orange zest over a big block of ice try Dutch Kills in Long Island City, Empire Diner in Chelsea, or the newly opened Lincoln Center Kitchen in Avery Fisher Hall. For its polar opposite, with lots of fruit in it, trashy but tasty, order one at La Cheile, a clubby Irish bar in Washington Heights. Creative variants are found at Bar Bolonat, where "not the old fashioned" is served in a martini glass with herbs, and Death & Co. in the EV, where tequila and mezcal give the cocktail a welcome smoky savor.

My own special relation to the drink goes back nearly a decade, when I was working on a piece about Wisconsin supper clubs for Gourmet. These dining and drinking establishments arose as a response to Prohibition, selling bootleg booze, and still scatter the agrarian countryside. Typically, they were located by the roadside on the edge of farming towns. They often resembled houses or warehouses and had no signs, so that outsiders and G-men had trouble locating them. The menus were a combination of locally sourced steaks and lake-caught fish, and the arrangement was almost always the same: you walked into a barroom and sat down on a barstool, ordered a drink, and the bartender would present you with a menu. You'd contemplate the menu, have another drink, then place your order. When your dinner was laid on the table of the adjacent dining room, a waitress would come to the bar and summon you, and then you'd go, third or fourth cocktail in hand, and sit down to your meal.

I visited several of these places that still existed on the margins of Lake Winnebago in Central Wisconsin. And discovered that virtually the only cocktail available was the old fashioned. But it wasn't just any old fashioned. Dating from an era when nobody cared what the original recipe was, this drink was ultra-customizable. You could have it made with whiskey or brandy; you could have it mixed with club soda or 7-Up; you could have it on the rocks or straight up; and, finally, you could have it decorated with a choice of a dozen garnishes, which ran to pickled mushrooms, celery spears, pimento-stuffed green olives, pitted black olives, skin-on orange slices, carrot sticks, dill pickle spears, and — god help us  brussels sprouts (this is farming country, after all).

loaded old fashioned

Loaded-up old fashioned, Blanck's Supper Club, Johnsburg, Wisconsin

In many small rural communities across the state, these 70-year-old supper clubs still prospered. Even though the local lakes had been fished out and frozen fish filets  sometimes perch and walleye from Canada, sometimes Atlantic cod had been substituted. Steak (prime rib, in particular) is still the thing to get. Many of these towns had never seen a franchise restaurant like McDonald's or KFC, and thus the supper clubs represented the only form of eating out that could be done in the vicinity. Needless to say, they also formed the social centers for their respective communities. Come the end of the farming day around 5 p.m., the supper clubs would fill up with farmers dressed in overalls, and townsfolk fleeing their shops, garages, and factory jobs. My favorite was called Blanck's Supper Club, in Johnsburg, Wisconsin, where nearly everyone in town was surnamed Schneider.

A few months after my trip to Wisconsin Gourmet folded, just as my piece was about to run. But I'd left one aspect of my research unfinished and continued to pursue it doggedly. I'd been told by a couple of sources that supper clubs had originated in upstate New York, so I drove aimlessly for a time looking to see if an upstate version of the supper club could be found. I finally hit pay dirt two years ago in Columbia County, not far from Hudson, where the original old fashioned had first surfaced in print over 200 years earlier.

Kozel's

Kozel's sat along a commercial strip in West Ghent, New York, a low-slung and unprepossessing building of brick and white-painted shakes decorated with wrought iron that dated to the restaurant's founding in 1936. Inside, a big room was dominated by a horseshoe-shaped bar with tables in the barroom and more in an adjacent dining room, both wood-paneled. The place looked like the supper clubs of Wisconsin, and was filled with farmers and townspeople in for a fancy Sunday dinner. The menu was mainly meat and fish, though the fish ran to ocean varieties and shellfish, and the menu had some Italian aspects to it. Though beer was the beverage of choice, I readily acquired an old fashioned, which the barman obligingly filled with orange slices and maraschino cherries, asking if I wanted whiskey or brandy. Our party feasted that day on prime rib, gloriously dripping with pink juices and rare in the middle, plus fried chicken with biscuits. After dinner, I leaned back, second old fashioned in hand and exclaimed, "Wish we had a place like this in New York City!" Had Michael White gone through with his plan for The Butterfly, we would have.

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