As I noted in my previous entry, my 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide lists the original “Whiskey Cocktail”—that’s the one we now think of as the “Old-Fashioned.” That same publication provides evidence that the hard-line definition of the “cocktail” was fraying at the edges.

Thomas’s Guide for the first time includes recipes that call for ingredients unavailable before the middle of the 19th century. Entropy and imagination were loosening the tight boundaries of the cocktail category, which was evolving into something much more difficult to define.  Beginning with curaçao, a growing list of liqueurs and other new ingredients were creeping into the mix as the cocktail became increasingly baroque. Maraschino appeared, and absinthe, and most important of all, vermouth. Thomas records that the industry was using these ingredients to “improve” the old cocktail formulas, and in new combinations that would become the cocktails we’re familiar with today.

That original, “unimproved” Whiskey Cocktail is an excellent and straightforward drink; I like its simplicity,  its lack of pretention, and its solid winter-by-the-fire character.

Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the derivatives; the successful ones trump the original in terms of imagination, flavor, diversity, and sophistication. And of course, plain old entrepreneurial spirit.

The Improved Whiskey Cocktail, cold-glass.com photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Improved Whiskey Cocktail

Thomas listed his own “improved” version in the Guide. It’s a little bit pickier to make—ingredients I buy in large bottles are measured in dashes—but it is absolutely satifying in its own right. Here’s the way it was originally written:

Improved Whiskey Cocktail. (Thomas)
Jerry Thomas, Bartenders Guide (1887)

  • Take 2 dashes of Boker’s (or Angostura) bitters.
  • 3 dashes gum syrup.
  • 2 dashes Maraschino.
  • 1 dash Absinthe.
  • 1 small piece of the yellow rind of a lemon, twisted to express the oil.
  • 1 small wine-glass of [Bourbon or rye whiskey].

Fill glass one-third full of shaved ice, shake well, and strain into a fancy cocktail glass, put the lemon peel in the glass and serve.

The flavor is improved by moistening the edge of the cocktail glass with a piece of lemon.

I don’t have a lot of dasher bottles lying about to keep my absinthe and maraschino in, so I was delighted to find that David Wondrich (Imbibe!, 2007) had worked out standard measurements that work very well:

Improved Whiskey Cocktail (Wondrich)
David Wondrich, Imbibe! (2007)

  • 2 dashes Boker’s (or Angostura) bitters
  • 1 tsp. gum syrup
  • ½ tsp. Maraschino
  • ⅛ tsp. Absinthe
  • 1 small piece of the yellow rind of a lemon, twisted to express the oil
  • 2 oz. bourbon or rye whiskey

Fill glass one-third full of shaved ice, shake well, and strain into a fancy cocktail glass, put the lemon peel in the glass and serve. The flavor is improved by moistening the edge of the cocktail glass with a piece of lemon.

Two things in particular caught my eye in this recipe, the technique and the glass.

It intrigues me that Thomas recommends shaking this drink, and Wondrich gives that a pass without a word. It would be interesting to talk with him about that one day—it suggests that I need to learn some history about the shake vs. stir religious wars. (I experimented, and discovered that no harm will come to you if you choose to stir.)

An even bigger surprise was the “cocktail glass.” I’m so used to the idea of serving this type of drink in a rocks glass—it is called an Old-Fashioned glass, after all—that I didn’t even see the cocktail glass notation the first couple times I made this drink. Thomas probably didn’t have V stems available; his cocktail glass would have been a rounded affair, more like a small wine glass. It pleases me to substitute a coupe. Or just stick with the rocks glass, Sazerac-style.

Shake or stir, up or rocks, doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that I like this drink very much, picky measurements and all. It looks and tastes a lot like a Sazerac to me, and that little bit of maraschino is a delightful and welcome addition (but don’t overdo it—it gets too sweet.) As Wondrich says in Imbibe!, “For those who have ever had one, to contemplate it is to desire it.”