The old fashioned has been the old-fashioned way to make a cocktail for about 130 years, during which time it has been in and out of fashion - its current resurgence seems almost entirely attributable to its popularity with Mad Men's dreamy Don Draper, who is rarely without one in his dapper hand as he swings his way through the 60s.
The no-nonsense counterpart to all those tediously long drinks full of fizz, fancy flavours and more fruit juice than your average breakfast bar, the old fashioned is that rare thing: a cocktail that actually tastes of booze. It is a drink that goes down as well before dinner as after it; one that you've almost always got the ingredients for; and which packs just enough punch that one is, sensibly, enough. (Though, unlike a martini, two is rarely too many.)
Simple it may be, but, as the ever-wise Victoria Moore observes in her book How to Drink, an old fashioned raises "so many points of contention that explaining precisely what sort of old fashioned you would like could easily involve a 10-minute discussion". People get very worked up about their old fashioneds, it seems. So what is the best way to make one?
Though an old fashioned today means whiskey, it was not always thus; early recipes also give the option of a gin, brandy or even rum cocktail. However, whiskey was always the most common poison in a drink often said to have been created by a Kentucky colonel (no, not that one) and bourbon distiller, James E Pepper, but which actually predates that man by about a century. You could, of course, make an old-fashioned with scotch, or Japanese, or Indian whisky, but you probably shouldn't; rye and bourbon are the two canonical choices (the Canadian whisky demanded by 1920s recipes can be explained by prohibition).
Rye whiskey, which is harder to get hold of in this country (though by no means impossible) has a sharper, spicier flavour, in contrast to bourbon's rich, demerara-like sweetness. The Chicago Tribute reported in 1882 that the former was the more popular choice for the cocktail in that city, but I prefer the fuller, darker flavour of bourbon, though I'd recommend giving rye a try if you come into a bottle.
Moore calls for a brown sugar cube; Charles Schumann's American Bar and Irvin S Cobb's Own Recipe Book (1934) simply uses a sugar cube; cocktail legend Dale DeGroff's The Craft of the Cocktail uses a teaspoon of sugar (colour unspecified); and Martin Doudoroff, the author of the quite wonderful Old Fashioned 101 website, uses simple syrup. Doudoroff explains his choice thus: "You can indeed use crystallised sugar, but it's more work: you'll have to wet it with a few drops of water and work it until it dissolves into a syrup before proceeding. Crystallised sugar won't dissolve on its own once you add the spirits. If you add spirits before dissolving the sugar, you'll wind up with an unsweetened drink and a gritty sludge of sugar in the bottom of the glass".
The same holds true for a sugar cube - which is why Moore's version requires five minutes of hard stirring. I can't help wondering if all that elbow grease is worth it when you could just use sugar that has already been dissolved in water, in the form of syrup. However, Moore's brown sugar has a superior flavour to the white pretenders - and flavour is what we're chasing here. Brown sugar syrup is available, but frankly, it's a lot cheaper to make your own. If you don't have time to do so and let it cool (ie if you're reading this with a serious thirst for an old fashioned), use brown sugar instead, and prepare for some serious stirring.
No debate here; the drink needs bitters to balance that sugar and tie the flavours together. Doudoroff recommends starting with the standard: "Angostura bitters is the ubiquitous benchmark aromatic bitters and always the default choice when no brand is specified. Angostura bitters always works." Though, of course, other brands are available. Some recipes, including Cobb's, also add a dash of curaçao, the bitter orange liqueur often tinted a violent shade of blue for reasons unknown, which mirrors Doudoroff's own taste for a dash of orange bitters alongside his Angostura. Though not unpleasant, it adds a certain orange Fruit Pastille-like quality to the drink, which I don't think it needs.
Finally we arrive at the bunfight that is fruit. DeGroff is in favour of muddling a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry into the drink, writing that "those other guys just want some sweetened whiskey, not an old fashioned". In the other camp, Doudoroff insists: "you do not mash up fruit of any kind in an old fashioned. To do so implies a perverted nastiness of mind." He and Moore will sanction a strip of orange rind (lemon, he allows, makes a change when using rye, rather than bourbon); Schumann muddles orange and lemon slices and leaves the cherry as a garnish; and Cobb goes for a wonderfully overblown garnish of orange, lemon and pineapple slices, but puts none in the drink itself.
Now, I'm usually firmly in the DeGroff camp, but I'm surprised by how much I enjoy Moore and Doudoroff's cocktails - they have a certain austere elegance I can imagine going down well before dinner. Yet, though they may be new-fangled additions, I can't help missing the bittersweet flavour of the orange and cherry, and the colour they bring. A good cocktail should be a treat for the eyes, as well as the palate, as you slowly sip your way down its length. Don't overdo it, though; the predominant flavour should still be that of the whiskey.
Ice and water
More contentious is the subject of dilution. Now, for those who insist on using lump or granulated sugar, a dash of water is essential - you'll never dissolve it in alcohol alone. But if you're using syrup, it is unnecessary, particularly if you're muddling orange in there too, which will provide its own dilution (I firmly believe a splash of water brings out the flavour of most alcohols). Worst of all, however, are the recipes, such as Schumann's, that top up the glass with soda or still water (which may also be the only sin I can't forgive Don Draper), killing its potent, boozy charms stone dead. DeGroff lists water or soda as optional extras, cautioning the reader to "be careful not to drown the drink". The best way to avoid that danger, in my opinion, is not to start down that road in the first place; if you want a long drink, have one.
Ice, however, which Doudoroff lists as optional because of its similarly, if slower, diluting qualities, is a must - as the temperature of the drink drops, its sweetness comes to the fore. If you have one of those giant ice-cube moulds to impede the melting process, so much the better.
A slice of orange and an extra cherry will make the drink look pretty, but I don't think it needs lemon, pineapple or any of the other garnishes that became popular in the drink's Draper-era dark days. This is a cocktail, as Victoria Moore observes, that should be drunk "with gravitas".
The perfect old fashioned
For the sugar syrup (makes lots of syrup, but keeps almost indefinitely):
100g brown sugar
For each drink:
Bitters of your choice
2 slices of orange
2 maraschino cherries
Put the sugar and water in a small pan and bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Decant into a jar or bottle and allow to cool.
Put a splash of syrup in a small rocks glass and add a couple of dashes of bitters. Put in a slice of orange and a cherry, then muddle against the bottom of the glass until the fruit is thoroughly mushed. Remove the orange and any big bits of cherry skin.
Pour in the bourbon and stir well. Taste and add more syrup or bitters if you feel it lacking. Add ice in quantity, then garnish with the remaining fruit. Serve immediately and drink slowly.
The old fashioned: are simple drinks always best? Is a maraschino cherry sacrilege? And what's your default choice at the bar?
The perfect old fashioned. Photographs: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian