The Original Recipe for the Old Fashioned Cocktail?

The New York Times has a February 22, 2012 post that is a  real head-scratcher. And teeth-gritter.

It involves a fellow (Martin Doudoroff) who has put up this website, http://oldfashioned101.com/, which claims to provide the original and correct recipe for the Old Fashioned.

During the 20th Century, various bad ideas encrusted the Old Fashioned. Here we will strip off those barnacles to expose the amazingly simple and sublime drink beneath…. There is no slice of orange in an Old Fashioned. There is no cherry in an Old Fashioned. You do not mash up fruit of any kind in an Old Fashioned. There is no seltzer, soda water, ginger ale, or lemon soda in an Old Fashioned.

Where to begin with all this cocktail fire and brimstone?

(1) What is the basis for Doudoroff’s contention that he has the original recipe?  We searched his website looking for his evidence and found nothing beyond a citation of one of Dave Wondrich’s books.

(2) Supposing Doudoroff’s is the very first version of the Old Fashioned, so what?  The notion that a recipe as initially composed is TRUE and THE BEST and not to be changed is just a contention.  This conflates the notions of “original” and “correct.”  The proof is in the taste.  Which leads to point (3).

(3) Dale DeGroff, aka King Cocktail, provides the Old Fashioned recipe at http://www.kingcocktail.com/DrinksM-R.html.  Dale says the ingredients include orange and cherry and possibly soda water.  Are we to believe Doudoroff knows more about making a tasty drink than Dale?  Doudoroff, by the way, is a cocktail enthusiast who works in IT.  He is not a bartender.

(4) Millions of Old Fashioneds have been served with cherry/orange/etc. and pleased many customers.  Who is Doudoroff to heap scorn on their preferences by trashing their recipe and declaring that his bare bones recipe will “elevate” one’s taste?  His recipe, mind you, is nothing more than whiskey mixed with sugar and a twist.  (Yawn.)

(5) Anyone who claims there are RIGHT recipes (and that all others are decadent) is engaging in a bit of historical culinary sophistry. All recipes, be they drink or food, evolve over time, especially because the ingredients themselves change.  For example, the whiskey made today isn’t the same as the whiskey made a century ago.  Similarly, few 19th century bars stocked cherries and oranges—they just were not available.  Rcipes can be improved and should take account of the changing raw materials.

In short, it strikes us that the New York Times uncritically has given a nice bit of publicity to a zealot with some highly debatable notions.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “The Original Recipe for the Old Fashioned Cocktail?

  1. In fairness, he does mention in at least one or two parts of his post that there are lots of other things one could use to create a *variation* on an old fashioned but that an actual old fashioned should always be those few elemental ingredients.

    I don’t think it’s all that far off from insisting that a martini is some combination of gin and dry vermouth rather than vodka with a vermouth rinse or whatever.

    There’s nothing wrong with liking orange and cherry in your whiskey or enjoying vodka with a vermouth rinse. But neither are the actual drinks, which have pedigrees and names and histories behind them, that they purport to be.

    There is some value to having a little common understanding of what the names of drinks mean. A little leeway is fine and expected, but when I order an Old Fashioned at a bar and get the DeGroff version with muddled fruit, I’m pissed off because I’m paying for something I wasn’t expecting.

    Personally, I use a tiny dollop of simple in the bottom of a glass, a dash of Ango, 2 ounces of bourbon, an orange twist, and I dilute and chill it by stirring with ice. But I wouldn’t stray much beyond that and actually call the drink an Old Fashioned.

  2. “Doudoroff, by the way, is a cocktail enthusiast who works in IT. He is not a bartender.”

    At least let’s argue consistently. In point #2, you say we shouldn’t conflate original and correct and best. So why doesn’t the conflation of ideas bother you when you use it to support your own argument? Here you conflate occupation with expertise. It would be like arguing against Pierre de Fermat by saying he was a lawyer, not a mathematician. A spurious argument.

  3. Hi, Jason. let’s try to make the point this way so that you see there’s no conflation.

    Dale Degroff has pleased tends of thousands of customers with his Old Fashioneds. Doudoroff has not. He works in IT. Yet, he derides the very recipe that DeGroff touts. So what basis has Duodoroff have to say that his recipe is superior to Dale’s? None beyond that he personally likes it and thinks it is better because it was the original one.

  4. Evan: Well put. Thanks for your comments.

    But if we take your line of argument, what to do about the Martini? If the earliest version was 50% vermouth, used sweet vermouth, and orange bitters, then shall we quit calling the gin and dry vermouth drink a “martini” since it is SO different? (See http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/drinking/cocktails/martini )

    This is one reason why Doudoroff’s position strikes us as so cockamamie. For a century folks have been calling the DeGroff style of Old Fashioned an Old Fashioned. Are we supposed to stop doing that because the drink was made differently 200 years ago?

    As a more general point, the denotations and connotations of words change over time. This is a linguistic fact. So, to pound one’s fist and grouse that people have been using a word incorrectly for one hundred years is a bit school marmy.

    Today when we say “Old Fashioned” or “Martini” we mean what we mean today. (Thus—What kind of jerk would go into a bar an order and Old Fashioned and then complain when the bartender gave him a drink with cherry and orange in it?)

    Perhaps the best course is for retro-purists like Doudoroff to suggest that folks speak of “Old Fashioned’s” and “Original Old Fashioned’s”…?

  5. I could agree with your counterpoints if it were the case that an Old Fashioned as it was historically made had disappeared from existence. But it’s very much the way a lot of grandfathers have still been making them since they were growing up pre-WWII.

    That someone else popularized (probably more so in some regions than others) a version with fruit in it confuses matters to be sure, but it’s not as though that version took over as the only recipe or even the dominant recipe.

    Even when I have received an old fashioned made DeGroff’s way, it hasn’t been consistent. Half the time I get Sprite in it, of all things.

    I think the reality is that a lot of cocktail knowledge was lost as we entered the era of mass production and TV dinners. Names definitely lost SOME of their meaning. But not everywhere and not completely. Why would I or anyone else accept DeGroff’s drink as an Old Fashioned when I’d never had it made that way initially and when I later discovered that his was a later approach to what I’d already been used to?

  6. I’m not sure that pleasing customers is the measure of expertise either, though. David Wondrich is a historian, not a bartender, but I’d trust his opinion on what is or isn’t historically accurate more than a lot of bartenders. That’s Doudoroff’s main source, and I also know that Doudoroff has been very active in cocktail circles for a long time. So it’s certainly not inappropriate to consider his opinion at least valid. There are plenty of facets to this discussion, but whether or not his opinion should matter as much as someone like DeGroff’s, to me, isn’t one of the important ones.

  7. Evan:

    We’re enjoying your responses!

    Sprite? Egad! For sure, there are better and worse ways to make the drink. Adding Sprite falls into the latter!

    Interesting—every Old Fashioned tippler we’ve ever met (even when we bartended) thought an Old Fashioned ought to be made with fruit in it. I believe it is the reining paradigm; I think folks who think otherwise are the rare minority. I can’t recall a standard cocktail book published in the past 30 years that carries a fruitless Old Fashioned recipe. (Perhaps I missed one or more?) Indeed, we bet if you were to walk into 100 bars in America and order an Old Fashioned 95 times you’d get one with the fruit in it. (Assuming the glassy eyed youth behind the counter had some idea what you were talking about.)

    Indubitably, it is fine if some folks want to have their Old Fashioned the Doudoroff way—hey, if they think it tastes best, then let have at it. It’s not for others to say.

    And I’d hope that folks would feel the same about those of us who appreciate a well-made version with pestled orange and cherry, which ahs beena round a very long time. (Unlike, say, the watery buckets of vodka being passed off as “Martinis.”) But clearly Duodoroff does not feel that way. His website essentialy tells people who have fruit in theird rink they are not drinking an Od Fashioned and that their drink is not as good as the ‘original” recipe. That smacks of cocktail snobbery.

  8. To be clear—we’re not saying DeGroff’s recipe is THE ORIGINAL AND ONLY ONE. He is no historian, although he is for sure deeply steeped in 20th century cocktail history.

    DeGroff is worth trusting on what makes a good drink because he has served so many drinks. If he was feeing customers bad cocktails, he wouldn’t be as respected as he is. Ergo, if he finds it appropo to serve Old Fashions with fruit in them—well, then that’s saying something. The man GETS flavor—he isn’t going to tout a recipe if he thinks it produces a crappy drink.

    Unfortunately, Doudoroff’s website does not pay the DeGroff style of Old Fashioned any respect. It scorns it.

    In short, Doudoroff makes the assertion that the earliest recipe (discovered thus far) is the best recipe for the Old Fashioned. This line of argument is suspect on at least a couple counts, as we’ve argued (e.g., earliest does not equal best.)

    Cheers!

  9. Wait, wait, wait. Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. And don’t make me a Martinez cocktail and call it a mid century martini. The Martinez evolved and eventually became the martini, and that’s important. Some bartenders must either be lazy or unimaginative because although they concoct a perfectly interesting drink, they forgo the effort to name their new cocktail and simply call it a sakitini or an Old Fashioned. Not too long ago, I read an excellent piece on this very site ( http://alcoholreviews.com/?p=2369), though the author escapes me, that extolled the many virtues of the original Old Fashioned recipe, which was also explored in great detail by a Slate piece not too long ago (http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2011/11/the_old_fashioned_a_complete_history_and_guide_to_this_classic_c.html).

    Put simply, the original Old Fashioned, as cited by David Wondrich or a 75 year old copy of Mr. Boston, is a very straight forward cocktail made with whiskey, sugar, bitters and a citrus garnish. Once the fruit salad showed up, it became more sangria than cocktail. And maybe people liked all the fruit. That’s fine, but it’s no longer the same drink. Just as the martini is not the Martinez despite the fact that it was born from it.

    In an age that still sees too many “tini” drinks because bartenders can’t be bothered to come up with a proper name for their own concoctions, I applaud Doudoroff’s efforts. If there were a few more people like this IT professional maybe the world would stop trying to put vodka in my martini.

  10. A fine article it is indeed: http://alcoholreviews.com/?p=2369 Quoth: “Long before custom vans and hippies, the old fashioned was little more than whiskey, bitters and sugar. It was a drink to help the bad whiskey go down.” Indeed–which sounds like a palliative not a cocktail. And what’s that cherry doing floating in the drink pictured??? 😉 Pestled orange and cherry and bitters vs. orange bitters and a brandied cherry? Hmmm, they seem not terribly far apart!

    How about we agree to term the non-fruit version the “Original Old Fashioned” and the more current one simply the “Old Fashioned”? It seem both futile and a bit of pecksniffery to try to reclaim the “original” definition of a word once it is long gone. (E.g., the term “liberal” long ago meant something very different than it does to day.) Meanwhile, might the one described in this sage article [http://alcoholreviews.com/?p=2369] properly be christened the “Long Old Fashioned”?

  11. The Long Old Fashioned flies in the face of my argument, but it’s solid, so let’s go with it. Besides, garnish is important to a cocktail, but not as important as the primary liquid components. And you have to admit, there’s quite a bit of difference between a brandied cherry dropped in at the end and a muddled mash of orange pulp and cherries that’s stirred into the whiskey.

  12. No doubt that earliest does not necessarily equal best. But it’s also true that most customers served does not equal best palate or most knowledgeable. I’ve never had a drink made by DeGroff, but I’ve had plenty of drinks from original DeGroff recipes, and while many are outstanding, there are some TERRIBLE, sweet 80s style drinks and some bland, weird ones in there too.

    No qualms with taking offense at Doudoroff’s page. Fine. Everyone’s got an opinion and some valid ideas to back it up. But DeGroff’s expertise really doesn’t, to my mind, help your particular perspective on the discussion.

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