YAKIMA, Washington. — It’s about time a guy could walk into his favorite saloon and order a whiskey cocktail without that order needing more precision.
Until the end of the 19th century, the expression “whisky cocktail” meant only one thing: rye or bourbon with bitters, sugar and water. You sharp-eyed cocktail drinkers might recognize this recipe; it’s 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.)
That’s what happened with the second edition of Jerry Thomas’ influential “Bar-Tender’s Guide”, published in 1876. In addition to established recipes for things like whiskey cocktails, there was an appendix featuring “upgraded” versions – cocktails spiced up with little splashes. more exotic ingredients. Specifically, Thomas’ upgraded brandy cocktail called for maraschino liqueur and absinthe. His recipe for the Improved Whiskey Cocktail was simple: “Prepared the same way as the Improved Brandy Cocktail, replacing the brandy with whiskey.
The differences between this and a regular whiskey cocktail were small in liquid volume but significant in flavor. And new beverages took off, launching an era of creativity in beverage making at the end of the 19th century. Sweet liquors and bits of fruit and things like vermouth opened up a whole new world of possibilities for beverage inventors. Meanwhile, those who still liked the original versions had to start calling them old-fashioned cocktails to make sure they were just booze, bitters, sugar, and water like they had always been before.
There is still a lot to be said for the Old Fashioned, of course, as simple and pure as it is. And there’s a lot to be said for the role of the improved whiskey cocktail in bridging the gap between old and new. What is often lost, however, is that the enhanced whiskey cocktail wasn’t just influential; it was also delicious.