New takes on old fashioneds
Simonson and Raskin size up the ready-to-drink landscape
If you feel like you’re seeing more ready-to-drink cocktails at the liquor store, you’re not wrong: According to research firm Mintel, the beverage category grew by 226 percent between 2016 and 2021, with almost half of adults in 2021 counting themselves among premade cocktail drinkers.
But which mixed drink is worth buying? With the holidays approaching, I arranged a Zoom tasting of ready-to-drink old fashioneds with cocktail writer and fellow Substack publisher Robert Simonson. Simonson has authored half a dozen books, including The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, and Modern Classic Cocktails, published in October by Ten Speed Press.1
You can subscribe to Simonson’s newsletter, The Mix, here.
While Robert and I tried to track down the same ready-to-drinks for sampling, inventories vary by state: You may well find another packaged old fashioned in your market. Let us know if you like it.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. Don’t miss the poll at the very end!
Hanna Raskin: Thank you for making time. I know you're slammed with all sorts of book events.
Robert Simonson: Yeah, my whole fall is pretty much spoken for. But this has to be done.
HR: Has to be done. OK, we’re going to try some old fashioneds. But before we do, you and I both believe that taste is enhanced by knowing the history of a thing, so what should folks know about old fashioneds before we start drinking them?
RS: The old fashioned is the original cocktail, defined back in 1806 as spirits, water, bitters, and sugar. And back then, it wasn't called the old fashioned, it was just called a whiskey cocktail.
HR: It wasn't old-fashioned yet, I suppose.
RS: No. That came around in the 1870s, because bartenders started changing the recipe and adding little things, like curacao and absinthe, and the old fuddy-duddies said, "I want an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail!"
Over the course of the next 50 years, that eventually got shortened to “old fashioned.” After Prohibition, nobody really remembered that it was an adjective.
It used to be a drink without ice that you drank in the morning. Then in the late 19th century, it started being put on ice, in a rocks glass, which eventually was called an old-fashioned glass…it was a simple drink back then. Just a slug of whiskey, a good slug of whiskey. Some bitters and sugar, which back then was raw sugar, that was muddled up until it would turn into syrup. And a twist, usually an orange or a lemon. And the whiskey was bourbon or rye. There was no standard.
After Prohibition, things got a little confused, and we ended up with the muddled old fashioned that many people know, where you muddle an orange and a cherry at the bottom of the glass, then you put the whiskey in. Sometimes it was topped with soda water, sometimes with soda pop, and it became more like a little individual fruit punch.
With the cocktail revival, we got back to the original form, which is what you see at a lot of the finer cocktail bars now: A very simple drink that spotlights the whiskey.
HR: It does seem like this is something that someone could mix at home. The idea of buying this pre-made is almost a little goofy, right?
RS: Yeah. Before COVID, canned cocktails didn't have much cache. There were people trying to do them, but nobody really cared, including drinks writers like myself. But being in quarantine, you started to see the benefit.
And now there are so many brands. And one of the ones that you started seeing most often was the old fashioned, because it is simple.
You make the point that it's so simple, we should make it at home, but there's so many things that we should do at home. Everyone wants convenience. And so, we have canned old fashioneds.
Without knocking them too much, nothing can replace a cocktail made from scratch. It's just going to have that freshness. It's going to have that spark, that little je ne sais quoi. The canned cocktails, they've been in that can for a while, so you're going to be wrestling with a certain amount of staleness.
HR: And with that, what have we got to taste today?
RS: We've got five, and we can do them in any order you want. I've got them chilling here in an ice bucket. Do you care which comes first?
HR: No. You call the shots, so to speak.
RS: Alright. I'm just going to pull them out one-by-one. This is a new one to me. It's by a company called Post Meridiem in Atlanta. It's at 37 percent alcohol, and it says [it’s] made with straight bourbon whiskey, a blend of three bitters, which is interesting, demerara syrup, which is kind of fancy, and orange zest oil.
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