You can count the ingredients for the classic whiskey old fashioned on the fingers of one hand.
Wrap those fingers around the drink, though, and you’re holding a cocktail with layers of history, deep resonance for personal tradition and even some synchronicity with the holiday season.
The drink is a crowd-pleaser. It has the bona fides to satisfy serious cocktail aficionados while remaining approachable. Anyone who likes whiskey can probably get behind an old fashioned.
But there’s something more that endears it to the season, something that goes beyond the blueprint recipe of whiskey, sugar, bitters and water.
The drink is strong and sweet, but mellowed and blended, like recollections of holidays past. When memories float closer to the surface in this most nostalgic time of year, the old fashioned helps stir them.
“An old fashioned is the first drink a lot of people were introduced to, and it was usually someone close to them who introduced it — their grandfather or their aunt maybe,” said Liam Deegan, a partner at Barrel Proof, the Lower Garden District whiskey bar.
“Whenever they have one, whenever they make one, they’re thinking of that person, so there’s a ritual to it,” he said.
Just ask Cindy Mandina. Her Creole Italian restaurant Mandina’s (est. 1932) maintains a version of the drink that is simultaneously an oddball of the style and an indispensable part of this Mid-City institution.
The "Miss Hilda old fashioned" is made with Crown Royal; it’s brightly festooned with candy-red cherries, lemon and pineapple; and it’s finished with a splash of Bacardi rum.
The namesake of the Miss Hilda old fashioned was Mandina’s grandmother, who lived upstairs from the dining room with her husband, Anthony, and worked at the restaurant from World War II until her death in 1979.
“She was the salad lady; she worked every night, and at the end of her shift, she had her old fashioned, sometimes two,” Mandina said. “But the way she made it, she would splash some Bacardi rum on top. That’s the way we still do it, because that’s how she liked it.”
A more classic rendering of the old fashioned has long been a popular call at Mandina’s. In years past, the staff would line the bar with premade old fashioneds in advance of the lunch hour and the supper rush.
The drink's prevalence at Mandina’s has something to do with location and, again, memory.
The restaurant sits across from a funeral home and just down Canal Street from a complex of cemeteries. It’s common to see families clad in dark clothes convening at Mandina’s after a funeral.
“So what do they drink? They order the favorite drink of whoever just died, in honor of them,” Mandina said. “A lot of times, that’s an old fashioned.”
What’s in a name?
The old fashioned’s name says it all. It is old, dialing back to the earliest ideas of what made a cocktail distinct from any other kind of drink. It’s a strong spirit sweetened with sugar, diluted with water and balanced with bitters.
Many cocktail historians concur that the drink’s name evolved in response to the late-19th-century wave of cocktail innovation, when new ingredients started joining the bartender’s standard formulations, like vermouth. Some drinkers, though, wanted to brush all that aside.
“It came from people saying ‘make me a cocktail, but make it the old fashioned way,’” said Chris McMillian, proprietor of Revel Cafe & Bar and a noted cocktail historian. “That essentially means without the embellishments.”
Through the generations, the drink has been rediscovered, reinterpreted and chiseled back down to basics.
Still, the template has proven a reliably tempting vehicle for customization, and today around New Orleans, the old fashioned is the starting point for countless variations.
Revel itself lists an Oaxaca old fashioned, made with tequila and mezcal, and Dr. T’s rum old fashioned, right next to the classic, which is served with vintage glass muddlers so drinkers can keep stirring as they go.
DTB, the modern Louisiana restaurant on Oak Street, uses bourbon infused with brown butter in its old fashioned, giving a caramel richness and light lip-smacking texture to the drink.
Saffron NOLA, extending its kitchen’s Indian flavors to the bar, makes its old fashioned with mango chutney, bringing a subtle tropical brightness to the glass.
At the new Bayou Road bar Whiskey & Sticks, the house old fashioned uses Steen’s cane syrup in place of sugar, drawing on the Louisiana pantry staple’s molasses-like flavor.
Look behind the bar at High Hat Café, a Creole-meets-Deep South eatery best known for gumbo, pie and pimento cheese, and you can see the small, stubby oak casks that manager Ryan Iriarte uses to make his barrel-aged old fashioned. Bourbon and bitters are aged together for a month, and the cocktail is finished to order with sugar, water, orange peel and Amarena cherries in a brandy syrup.
“Think of a pot roast that’s been sitting in a slow cooker for hours versus trying to get the same flavors by cooking in a pan,” Iriarte said.
The straight-up old fashioned is not hard to find around town. CellarDoor, the CBD cocktail bar, makes one with an especially velvety texture from demerara sugar. Order an old fashioned at Twelve Mile Limit, the cocktail dive in Mid-City, and the biggest deviation from the age-old classic might be the addition of a single heart-shaped chunk of ice.
Barrel Proof gives the old fashioned marquee status. Made with Old Grand-Dad, a bourbon young drinkers might just associate with their own grandfathers, it is essentially the house drink, Deegan said.
“This bar is built around that drink in one way or another,” said Deegan. “We knew if we were opening a whiskey bar the old fashioned had to be correct.”
If the holidays give the old fashioned a seasonal frame, for bartenders like McMillian the classic structure and long history of the drink make it an all-star of the bar and a standard for assessment.
“I tell bartenders, would you rather hear someone say ‘that’s the best amaro drink I’ve had this year,’ or ‘I’ve been drinking old fashioneds all my life and that’s the best one I’ve ever had'?" he said. “To me, a good old fashioned is as good as it gets.”
If you’re reading this and you still don’t know what dish you’ll bring to the Thanksgiving table this year, well, you’re like me.
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