We may think of something as old fashioned if it’s from the 1950s (or maybe the 1970s for millennial readers), but the Old Fashioned cocktail is much older than that. In the early 1800s the newly minted term “cocktail” referred to a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar. By the 1860s it was common to include orange curacao, absinthe, or other liqueurs in a cocktail. Drinkers who preferred something simpler, akin to the pre-1850s cocktails, would ask the bartender for an old fashioned cocktail.
The Old Fashioned is typically made with whiskey although variations include brandy and gin. Rye whiskey was originally favored in the 1800s but advantageous marketing and distribution of Kentucky bourbon elevated it to become the Old Fashioned spirit of choice by the 1880s.
Bourbon whiskey is recognized by the US government as a “distinctive product of the United States” and although it may be produced anywhere in the US where distilling spirits is allowed, 95% of it is produced in Kentucky. It has a long historical association in Kentucky dating back to the late 18th century when the Scots, Scots-Irish, and other European settlers first pushed west of the Allegheny Mountains after the Revolutionary War. Most bourbon distillers credit Kentucky’s unique limestone water for making outstanding bourbon. Simply put, limestone water is hard water with high levels of minerals such as magnesium and calcium.
Our tasting includes three similarly priced mid-range bourbons: Bulleit, Elijah Craig Small Batch, and Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Bulleit (pronounced bullet) was founded in 1987 and celebrated their 30-year anniversary with the opening of a new, state of the art distillery located in Shelbyville, Kentucky. It is blended from rye, corn, and barley malt and comes in at 45% ABV. In the glass is a light oak aroma with hints of nutmeg on the nose. The high rye content lends a dry, gently spicy character to the palate. The finish is fairly smooth and ends with notes of caramel and toffee.
Elijah Craig Small Batch is part of the Heaven Hill Distillery with a tasting room nestled in the heart of historic Bardstown, Kentucky. The brand is named for Baptist preacher, Elijah Craig, who was a late 18th century educator and entrepreneur in the in the area of Virginia that later became Kentucky. He owned a distillery and aged his whiskey in charred oak barrels, but he may not have been the first to do so as he is sometimes credited.
Elijah Craig Small Batch is blended with malted barley, rye, wheat, and at least 51% corn in the mash bill (the mix of grains that are cooked and fermented to begin the bourbon making process). It clocks in at 47% ABV. In the glass, we notice a sweeter nose with vanilla notes. The palate continues with the sweetness of corn and maple syrup. The finish is smooth with lingering notes of vanilla and barrel char.
The Woodford Reserve Distillery is a National Historic Landmark dating back to 1812. Chris Morris, Master Distiller, and Elizabeth McCall, Assistant Master Distiller are the skilled team whose expertise is utilized to produce the line of Woodford Reserve products and create new offerings such as the Woodford Reserve Double Oaked. The Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon Whiskey mash bill contains 72% corn, 18% rye, and 10% malted barley creating a balance of sweetness from the corn, spiciness of rye, and nuttiness from the malted barley. Its alcohol content is 45.2% ABV. Of our three tastings, Woodford has the most oak on the nose with aromas of caramel and maple. Strangely, even with a high corn content, the Woodford was also driest of our samples. It has a nice complexity of smoky barrel char, spicy pepper, and clove spices. Creamy on the finish with toffee notes.
Old Fashioned Cocktail Recipe
- 2 oz bourbon
- 1 sugar cube
- A few dashes of Angostura bitters
- Orange slice or wedges
- Maraschino cherries
- Place the sugar cube in a rocks glass and coat with a few dashes of bitters. Splash a tablespoon of water in the glass and muddle until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add 2 orange wedges and 2 maraschino cherries and muddle gently.
- Add ice to the glass and pour the bourbon over the ice. Gently stir to mix sugar, bitters, and fruit essence with the bourbon.
Making an Old Fashioned with each of the three bourbons turned into a Goldilocks and the Three Bears kind of story. In the Bulleit version, Goldilocks muddled two orange wedges and 2 maraschino cherries way too hard producing a drink with a whiskey punch vibe to it. For the Woodford Reserve version, Goldilocks used an orange slice and cherries as garnish with no muddling. The fruit lent some aromatics, but little in the way of flavor. Goldilocks made the Elijah Craig version by muddling more gently and the drink turned out just right, the perfect balance of fruit, bitters, and whiskey.
Once I mastered the whole muddling technique, we made another Old Fashioned using the Woodford Reserve and Angostura Orange bitters in place of regular bitters. The result was a delicious whisper of orange and spices balanced by the maple, smoke, and barrel char of the bourbon. Complex and sophisticated.