An old fashioned is a straightforward cocktail: whiskey, bitters, simple syrup or sugar, ice, and a twist. This enduring recipe has a long history with possible ties to Kentucky.
“There was a whiskey cocktail in the early 1800s,” says Andy Treinen, president and CEO of the Frazier History Museum in Louisville. “That was basically a sugar cube, and they would put bitters on top of it, and then they would muddle it and you would be allowed to pour your own whiskey over the top to taste.”
As bartenders and their customers got more experimental with their whiskey cocktails, endless variations came about. Ordering an “old fashioned” meant a patron wanted the classic drink made from whiskey, bitters, and sugar.
“Where it came from, it’s nuanced,” says Treinen. “There are different people that lay claim to the original old fashioned, and we lay claim to it here in Louisville, Kentucky.”
Treinen cites a story that identifies distiller James E. Pepper as the founder of the old fashioned. By that account, he was integral in creating the drink as a member of Louisville’s Pendennis Club. He brought the cocktail to New York City, where it gained popularity and became a mainstay of bars and clubs everywhere.
The old fashioned is now the official cocktail of Louisville, and the Frazier Museum ties that into the state’s bourbon history with its Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center and Spirit of Kentucky bourbon exhibit. The exhibit includes interactive components and a showcase of the commonwealth’s distilling industry.
“The bottle hall has every single bottle of bourbon currently in production in the state,” says Treinen. “One of the really cool things about ending that experience is there’s a secret in that bottle hall: If you touch the wall in just the right place, you’ll discover our speakeasy.
“The great thing about [bourbon] is, it is ours,” says Treinen. “It is our unique and authentic story in Kentucky. Bourbon tourism is taking off, and it’s here to stay.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2519, which originally aired on July 18, 2020. Watch the full episode.