Southern Stories
History of the Old Fashioned: Cognac vs. Bourbon
Jan 26/17

History of the Old Fashioned: Cognac vs. Bourbon Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments

The first time I made an old fashioned was in the fall of 2002. I had just moved to Nashville, Tenn., and had my first bartending job downtown on the strip. I was instructed by an older, more well-seasoned bartender to: drop a couple of brightly colored cherries, an orange slice, a pack of sugar, and some Angostura bitters into a glass; squish it with a muddler; top it with ice and bourbon; and call it a day.

mark twain bourbon glass


Little did I know that I would come to make thousands of Old Fashioned Cocktails in my lifetime, nor did I realize that first version I was taught was not only not very “old fashioned,” but historically was nowhere near close to “old fashioned.”

“Water, Spirit, Bitters, Sugar…” has become the mantra of many bartenders during this recent cocktail renaissance. It is also the original, simple recipe for the Old Fashioned.

In the early and mid 19th century, where the drinker lived geographically would likely dictate what spirit was used in his or her cocktail. For example, New Yorkers had a great deal of rye whiskey being produced in the northeast, and gin available through relatively steady European trade. The French influence in the delta port of New Orleans ensured Cognac flowed throughout the Deep South and all the way up the Mississippi River. To this day, Wisconsinites are notoriously dedicated to their brandy Old Fashioned consumption.

waterfowl double old fashioned glasses


In the late 19th century, a parasite called Phylloxera wiped out the French grapes used to make Cognac, leaving the South in dire need of a replacement. This sudden demand for spirits led to an influx of rye whiskey in traditionally brandy-based cocktails, and would also lead to the development and popular rise of Kentucky bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. The bourbon cocktail was then born, leading to perhaps the most modern Southern interpretation of this popular, versatile beverage. Here are two simple, classic recipes for a proper Old Fashioned using Cognac or bourbon.

Cognac Old Fashioned

2.5 ounces VS (Very Special) or VSOP (Very Special Old Pale) Cognac
1 to 2 sugar cubes
1 bar spoon of water (about a teaspoon)
3 to 4 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 wide orange peel for garnish
Standard bar ice
1 chunk ice

In a mixing glass, add the sugar cubes first, then the water, then the bitters. Use a bar spoon to stir these ingredients into a nice syrup. Add Cognac. Stir vigorously without ice until last of sugar begins to dissolve. Add bar ice and stir for 30 seconds. Put your nice large chunk of ice into an Old Fashioned glass, and strain the cocktail over it. Garnish with wide orange peel by twisting over the glass, and running around the rim. Place the peel on top of the ice and enjoy.

Modified Bourbon Old Fashioned

2 ounces bourbon
1 ounce Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Standard bar ice
1 chunk of ice
1 wide lemon peel

Combine the bourbon, Apricot Liqueur and bitters in a mixing glass with standard bar ice. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain over a large chunk of ice in an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with 1 wide lemon peel. Enjoy.

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