YAKIMA, Wash. – It was about time, a guy could walk into his favorite living room and order a whiskey cocktail without this order needing more precision.
Until the end of the 19th century, the expression “whiskey cocktail” meant only one thing: rye or bourbon with bitters, sugar and water. You piercing-eyed cocktail drinkers may recognize this recipe; this is what we now call an Old Fashioned. Of course, it had to be updated and to some extent supplanted before it could be called that. (You don’t call something old-fashioned when it’s brand new.)
This happened with the second edition of Jerry Thomas’ influential “Bar-Tender’s Guide”, published in 1876. In addition to the established recipes for things like whiskey cocktails, there was an appendix featuring versions ” improved ”- cocktails with small splashes of more exotic ingredients. Specifically, Thomas’ enhanced brandy cocktail called for maraschino liqueur and wormwood. His recipe for the Improved Whiskey Cocktail was simple: “Prepared the same way as the Improved Brandy Cocktail, substituting whiskey for brandy.”
The differences between this and a regular whiskey cocktail were small in terms of liquid volume but significant in terms of flavor. And new drinks took off, ushering in an era of creativity in beverage making in the late 19th century. Sweet liquors, chunks of fruit, and things like vermouth opened up a whole new world of possibilities for beverage inventors. Meanwhile, those who still loved the original versions had to start calling them old-fashioned cocktails to make sure they were just alcohol, bitters, sugar and water as they did. ‘had always been before.
There is still a lot to be said about Old Fashioned, of course, as simple and pure as it is. And there is a lot to be said for the role of the Improved Whiskey Cocktail in bridging the gap between the old and the new. What is often lost, however, is that the Improved Whiskey Cocktail was not only influential; it was also delicious.