Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Stuff You Should Know's Guide to Proper Adulthood: Old Fashioned Cocktails

Not ours precisely, but we'll take it. (c)iStockphoto
Not ours precisely, but we'll take it. (c)iStockphoto

Here at the Stuff You Should Know blog, we are starting a joint venture with the nice people over at They've launched a site called Motherboard that explores sci and tech, and since the last sentence of its very mission statement ends with "stuff you should know," they decided that Stuff You Should Know should have some sort of place on it ... and that place should be a place where we will dispense certain advice about how to grow up properly and how to be properly grown up. (And if you are reading this on Motherboard, which is that place, your brain must be soup right now.)

So this is it and here it is: the first installment of Stuff You Should Know's Guide to Proper Adulthood. To reassure any concerned reader that the type of adulthood we're pushing isn't of the boring sort, one of check registers with crisp margins and muesli, we shall launch this series with a spotlight on booze. And not just any booze, either, but what is perhaps the original concoction made from booze, the first drink to be described as a cocktail back in 1806, the Old Fashioned.

Which is not to say we're traditionalists - tradition is all fine and good, and we are keen on the longstanding tradition of enjoying well-made drinks. But we believe that the Old Fashioned is worth knowing about because the wide variety of versions that can be made from its minimal ingredients forms something of a primer for appreciating cocktails - and, hence, adulthood - as a whole.

First, to start with the requisite background on the cocktail in general. Cocktail, this term that we now use to refer to any drink made with booze, originally described a very specific type of booze drink, one made with, as cocktail historian David Wondrich over at Esquire puts it, "a little water, a little sugar, a lot of liquor and a couple splashes of bitters." This liquor could be anything, and indeed there are plenty of modern incarnations of the Old Fashioned that use rum, Irish whiskey, tequila or brandy for a base. But at some point, the world pretty much agreed that the Old Fashioned would be typically made using bourbon or rye. And those bitters, which at the time of the cocktail's original description in 1806 could be purchased from your local traveling snake oil salesman alongside a tincture of morphine for your infant child to calm his fussin', would come in this modern age to mean those produced by Angostura, which could be gotten from Trinidad beginning in 1830.

There is some more you should know about the Old Fashioned cocktail. We mentioned that the word "cocktail" described a specific drink with water, sugar, liquor and bitters, but we failed to tell you that the origin of the word is supposed to reflect the time of day when it was frequently consumed, in the morning as an eye opener. Cocktail is just "cock's tail" put together, and the rooster comes out most noticeably in the morning, which probably led to the tip of the cap to him with the drink's name. Other types of drinks that now fall under the generalized umbrella term of "cocktail" but formerly stood on their own include juleps, punches, rickies, smashes, toddies, sours, slings, coolers, cups, fizzes and highballs, each made from a pool of requisite ingredients or methods and each putatively enjoying its place of consumption at certain times of day or in certain weather or climes. Our post-colonial forebears went around half-crocked most of the time, it seems, and had it down to much more of a science than we do today.

You should also know why you may have had an Old Fashioned that was made with muddled orange bits and electric-red maraschino cherries. This was a contribution from the era of Prohibition, when well-crafted booze was hard to find. Bartenders did their best to disguise just how bad the spirits they served were by adding other flavors using garnishes. You can still find this version of the Old Fashioned in wide abundance at bars in the U.S., and not necessarily just at TGI Fridays. One of your correspondents stopped for an Old Fashioned at a certain legendary bar in New York where the men's urinals are known to be large enough for a man to actually stand inside (which your correspondent did not try, but did note that it would have been possible), and was served, at bartender's insistence, a version made with no orange but with muddled cherries.

(For even more on the Old Fashioned, check out this exhaustive article from Troy Patterson in Slate.)

And it is here that we reach the Stuff You Should Know motto: "To each, his own. Live and let live. Don't be a jerk." Neither we, nor anyone else in this great, wide world, are in any position to tell you, our dear reader, what kind of Old Fashioned you should like. That is folly and even bullying. For what can be a more personal decision than choosing a cocktail that makes you feel happiest when you're holding it in your hand, with the ice half melted and clinking around the glass? It is certainly not our place to judge; we merely hold out the original version in a gesture of offering, revealing the background with the notion that understanding where the drink came from and what it was originally intended to be seems like an excellent basis for further exploration, not just to finding what version of the Old Fashioned best suits you, our well-informed adult reader, but what other drinks you may enjoy. Here, at square one for every cocktail in the whole world, you may ask and answer a lot of initial questions about drinks in general: Do you prefer rye or bourbon? High-proof or smooth? How to zest an orange without getting any of the white pith? (A: Practice) What the hell are bitters made of, and how much do I like their taste?

These questions are fit for anyone who wishes to appreciate cocktails the Old Fashioned does not discriminate, and appreciating one crosses all boundaries of taste and time.

And so, we humbly submit our own version of the Old Fashioned cocktail, one based pretty much on the original:

Place a lump of demerara sugar in a rocks glass and saturate it with two to three dashes of Angostura bitters. Muddle the sugar and add two ounces good bourbon whiskey. Express a piece of orange zest over the drink and drop in the zest. Stir a bit and add a couple of medium-sized pieces of ice. You may also want to add a little spray of seltzer water too; we do sometimes.

All that's left is to enjoy your Old Fashioned. Enjoy the gift that is adulthood.

More to Explore