The Museum of the American Cocktail (MOTAC), along with Mr-Booze.com and Giramondo Wines Adventures, recently sponsored a “Cocktail Class for Beginners” at the Embassy Hilton in Washington. The event, hosted by MOTAC founding member Phil Greene, started off with a lecture about the history of cocktails.
According to MOTAC, the word cocktail was first defined in 1806 in the Balance and Columbian Repository, a newspaper in upstate New York. The word cocktail was used in reference to an article about a recent election.
At that time, politicians on the campaign trail would spend lots of money on alcohol, essentially buying votes by having a really good party. The newspaper published a tongue-in-cheek article about how much a particular candidate spent, even though he lost. This was the first recorded use of the word “cocktail,” and after this article was published, the editor felt compelled to define the word as
“A stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters, it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout at the same time fuddles the head. It is said also to be of great use to a democratic candidate because a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.”
For decades later, a cocktail was just that — a spirit and bitters diluted with water and sugar to take the edge off. This simple recipe may sound familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the cocktail known as the Old Fashioned.
Originally, the name “Old Fashioned” referred to any old–fashioned style cocktail such as a martini or Manhattan. Some people believe that Colonel James E. Pepper, a bourbon distiller and bartender at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, KY, created the Old Fashioned cocktail. What is more likely, according to Greene, was that the term “Old Fashioned” was applied to the drink known as a “Whiskey Cocktail.”
Next, Greene demonstrated the ease of making this primitive cocktail, which follows the same definition published in 1806 — liquor, sugar, water and Angostura bitters. While Phil used a muddler to ensure the sugar was fully dissolved, he also suggested substituting simple syrup. For an added flavor boost, Phil squeezed a lemon peel over the mixed drink, releasing its essential oils, before dropping it in as a garnish. He also noted that nowadays bartenders will sometimes muddle an orange slice or other fruit into the mixture.
While many modern drinkers may see this potable as downright “old-fashioned,” perhaps this granddaddy of cocktails deserves a second look. Its rudimentary formula has served as a building block for numerous contemporary drinks. The Old Fashioned’s straightforward composition and uncomplicated taste make it a refreshing alternative to many of the overly sweet and convoluted concoctions we see on so many restaurant menus today.
The Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail
1 sugar cube (1 teaspoon)
1 teaspoon water
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces rye (or bourbon) whiskey
Muddle sugar, water and bitters together until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Fill glass with ice, then add whiskey. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
For more information about upcoming seminars go to www.museumoftheamericancocktail.com or www.mr-booze.com. Ingredients to make the Old Fashioned cocktail may be purchased at Dixie Liquor at 3429 M Street in Georgetown.