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June 14th is National Bourbon Day!

Did you know?

Yes, June 14th has been declared "National Bourbon Day" and today, just for fun, I'd like to talk a little bit about one of the libation's most famous cocktail interpretations: the Old Fashioned.

Perhaps most commonly associated these days with Don Draper, the suave and slightly unbalanced ad man we all loved to hate on the hit period drama Mad Men, this drink dates way further back than the 1960’s--to a whole other set of 60’s, in fact: 1862.

Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks was published that year, which features a recipe for something called an "Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail" that involved crushing a lump of sugar in the bottom of a glass along with two dashes of Angostura bitters and a bit of water, a lemon peel, a piece of ice, and one jigger of Holland gin. A small bar spoon was given to the patron to lazily stir and further dissolve the sugar as one drank.

Photo by Abe Books

If the only Old Fashioned you’re used to is one loaded with oranges, made with a pre-packaged mix or Sprite, and topped with a bright red maraschino cherry, then Jerry Thomas’ concoction won’t look much like an Old Fashioned to you.

But in fact, the first published form of the whiskey Old Fashioned is exactly that same recipe as Thomas’, except with whiskey instead of gin, of course. A fella by the name of George Kappeler gets the credit for this in his own bartending book Modern American Drinks circa 1895.

Direct theft of Thomas’ idea? It might seem like it, but in the world of cocktails there are no patents and little joy in secrecy, and drinks evolve all the time based on what you have available—necessity as the mother of invention, as it were.

The simplicity of this four ingredient cocktail—booze, bitters, water, and sugar—is a ripe jumping off point for creative additions and riffs, but it’s to the ‘old fashioned’ classicists that we owe the name: precisely because when they ordered, they wanted to make sure they were getting the original four-ingredient classic and none of those modern "flourishes" from young experimenters.

One of the components of the drink, Angostura bitters, also has a bit of an interesting history. While there are literally hundreds of different kinds of artisanal bitters on the market these days, Angostura remains the original and the classic.

Originally developed by a German doctor in Venezuela as a digestive aid around 1824, the recipe of herbs and botanicals is a closely guarded secret. That’s right--the original purpose was medicinal, to soothe an upset stomach and stimulate appetite and digestion. Americans quickly caught on to the benefits, but Angostura bitters can be a bit of an acquired taste, and so they tempered it with a bit of alcohol, sugar, and water to help the medicine go down. Sound familiar?

There are many ways to enjoy an Old Fashioned. It's one of the classic drinks that lends itself to lazy outdoor drinking and dining, unlike a martini for example. As I mentioned earlier, it also has nearly hundreds of variations, allowing you to keep this time-worn drink fresh and interesting for your guests.

The addition of gourmet small batch Luxardo cherries in place of the usual maraschinos has been popular in the last couple of years, as is forgoing regular ice in favor of single extra-large cubes. You could try swapping maple syrup or honey for the sugar, which can be especially unique if you happen to keep bees on your property or tap your own trees. Virtually any citrus peel can be used in place of lemon, though orange or mandarin is by far the most popular.

If you or your guests are in fact purists, that’s great too! An Old Fashioned is after all one of the best cocktails that allows a good whiskey to shine, and if you choose to partake (safely, of course) on National Bourbon Day this year, know that you’re taking part in a much older American tradition.

So, tell us on Twitter @ConsultingRCS--do you have any special bourbon cocktails or events planned for next week? A tasting, perhaps, or a bourbon food pairing event? We want to hear about it!


The RCS Hospitality Group, creators of RCS Food & Beverage Boot Camp™, specialize in operations consulting, strategic planning, food and beverage management, and training programs for private clubs, fine dining restaurants, and high-end hotels and resorts around the world. For more information, phone (623) 322-0773; or visit the RCSHG website at

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Whitney Reid Pennell
 Founder & President

Whitney Reid Pennell is the founder and president of the award-winning RCS Hospitality Group (formerly Reid Consulting Services). She is a published author and widely praised seminar leader, with over 20 years of club operations management and consulting experience. 

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