How an Old Fashioned Became the Old Fashioned Staple of NYC

A Drink for the Ages

How an Old Fashioned Became the Old Fashioned Staple of NYC

It’s a drink that’s always in style no matter the decade or day of the week. It’s on every bartender’s curriculum and every mixed drink enthusiast’s bucket list, but the Old Fashioned has always been just one of the many building blocks that serve as the benchmark of New York City’s diverse list of distinguished mixed drinks.

It’s not the kind of comfort drink you’d plop two chipped ice cubes in, sprinkle a quick dash of sugar, and spill a few too many glugs of bourbon in a dirty shot glass. No, it is, instead, a classy drink of the finest tastes that requires expert execution.

New Yorkers love investing in the things that are produced with care and delicacy. There is no New York beverage more adduced of that yearning than in the form of an Old Fashioned. It has been a New York favorite for decades— and why shouldn’t it be? An Old Fashioned is both parts a masculine kickback as well as a classic lively drink you’re grandparents probably ordered before dancing the Charleston.

New Yorkers have a knack for mixing the old with the new. It is why record players and thrift shops are prominent in many of its hipster neighborhoods. We love celebrating the past and then tweeting about it. Rest assured, however, that there is no older cocktail favorite than that of the Old Fashioned. While New York is primarily keeping it alive with new and improved methods to approaching this 19th-century favorite, the drink has always found a way to remain the quintessential archetype of all things classy no matter the method.

It is the preferred beverage of Mad Men’s Don Draper. The series takes place in the 1960s in Manhattan’s Madison Avenue’s corporate world— which aligns perfectly with the Old Fashioned’s prominence in the New York scene. There’s really nothing to making an Old Fashioned.

A single sugar cube, Angostura bitters, bourbon, and an optional orange peel to soak in its glory, but Mad Men’s Draper has found a way to carry himself with enough smooth swagger and confidence to make his choice of alcoholic beverage seem all the more superior to others. The way he carries himself and his demeanor— Old Fashioned drink in hand— that complements his charisma, almost like he is conducting an orchestra.

It is by no means a coincidence that the Old Fashioned became a chiefly ordered drink choice of so many New Yorkers by the turn of 2010s when the series was on.

While the drink first made it’s splash two centuries ago, it was during the cocktail era of the 1960s when the Old Fashioned really flourished. By then, however, whiskey became its own calling and bartenders from all parts of New York began experimenting with their versions of the already iconic Old Fashioned. Within a year, you could find dozens of different kinds of the drink it all different parts of New York. How could one find the rightful original when so many were pioneering it with new renovations? Well, of course, you would walk right into any bar and say “I’ll take an Old Fashioned,” and get it the untampered way.

But that is a bygone era and, while it is the official cocktail of Louisville in its native state of Kentucky, it is New York that that has experimented and raised it up from infancy. To make bourbon, you need some damn fine corn— which Upstate New York makes ample of. The condition of the American bourbon is hotter than ever with no foreseeable reason for it to falter.

Bourbon is a spirit drink that cycles its production in yearly measurements as opposed to weeks. No matter how much care and servitude goes into distilleries meshing their bourbon— the best tasting ones are the ones that have been aged in a barrel for a few years.

Bourbon, in hindsight, caters to New Yorkers’ love for meticulously crafted

authenticity. Distilleries run by our friends in Brooklyn serve to provide us with the absolute best kind of bourbon because, when it comes to an Old Fashioned, it does nobody any good if we settle for anything less than the absolute best. Hudson Baby Bourbon, Widow Jane, or some straight up Kentucky Sazerac bourbon— they are all made or find their way to New York— putting the Old Fashioned back on the map of our character culture.

What’s great about the New York cocktail scene is that Brooklyn’s Old Fashioned is not the same drink in the East Side of Manhattan. The Lower East Side mixes their Old Fashioned with an Old Overholt bourbon, bourbon just as old as the Old Fashioned and still going as strong as car fuel. Williamsburg, New York mixes it with rye instead of bourbon.

The West Side uses a variety of aromatic bitters for sweetness and richer savoring flavors. The East Village is all about fruits when they dash in their bourbon to soak an orange peel or cherry in it. Jamaica revels it with club soda while other parts of the city use brown sugar.

Each of these subtle changes may seem like minutia to you, but mean the world to each section of the New York boroughs since it provides them with some much needed character. If one were to find themselves on 6th Street, though, there is one spot that most go to when in search for the reigning champ of Old Fashioned drinks.

Amor Y Amargo on East 6th Street prides itself on fulfilling the artful vigilance that goes into both honoring and improving the history of New York’s favorite drink.

So, where does it stand today? The Old Fashioned is still one of the most requested mixed drinks in all of New York. It is a drink with a long and prosperous history that, somehow, maintains its image of freshness. How many people do you think ordered a glass and kicked back its amber liquid and thought that this hit the spot?

It is a drink that is served to all of those looking to cap off their long week of work after realizing that a beer just isn’t going to do it. To hold a glass of one of these in your hand is to carry yourself as a mature boozer of the classiest kind. It means you’re a New Yorker at heart—you know what you want and just where to find it.

Jon Medrano Miller
Jon Medrano Miller
Read next: Whiskey: A Guide and History
Jon Medrano Miller

A regular teacher by day and a caped-crusading philosopher by night. I'm obsessed with political pop culture and then writing about it. "Don't talk unless you can improve the silence."

See all posts by Jon Medrano Miller