Let’s start from the beginning. Where did the cocktail originate? The earliest evidence of distillation was in southern Italy in the 12th century, where students at the School of Salerno used alcohol distillates in their medical practices. Over the years and through many happy accidents, we accumulated a variety of spirits from their different homes throughout the world.
In 1806, The Balance and Columbian Repository made the first printed mention of the phrase “cock-tail.” When an inquisitive reader wrote the editor asking him to explain what this “cock-tail” referred to, the editor responded with this simple recipe:
“A stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters[—]it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.”
The editor gave an explanation of the drink's potency, saying that it “is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head.”
There you have it, the beginnings of the cocktail. Although we don’t know where the term was originally coined, my favorite explanation is that tavern keepers would mark beverages containing alcohol with a feather as a garnish.
Somewhere in the past 200 years, the cocktail has taken every twist and turn imaginable to get where it is today. But remember its roots: spirit + sugar + bitters + water. Yes, I know you “don’t like sweet cocktails,” but when this formula was created, remember that spirits were much more rustic than we know them to be today, and it holds true that “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Bitters are also major factor here, helping to balance the sweetness and add depth. Last but not least, water is oftentimes the most valuable component to add to a drink. It changes a drink's texture, drinkability and even its flavor.
The most simplistic and well-known cocktail to follow these guidelines is the Old-Fashioned. Thanks to "Mad Men" character Don Draper, this drink has vastly risen in popularity over the past few years. Because of that, I have gotten to make and taste my fair share of them.
It’s a little different for everyone, and there is much debate when it comes to what fruit to muddle, if you can add soda, and whether or not to use simple syrup or a sugar cube. I’ve always stood by a standard recipe, dousing a sugar cube in Angostura bitters and muddling a citrus peel—some argue lemon, I prefer orange. Your base spirit of choice is up to you. Rye whiskey is preferable because of its spice, but many people prefer to stick with bourbon. Although not classic, give a good aged rum a try as well—you might surprise yourself.
I haven’t tried nearly enough Old-Fashioneds around town, but here are a couple of places that I’d suggest you try one:
—Local 191, 191 Chestnut St.: They muddle a cherry with theirs as well, a style that has become more and more popular. However, proper use of bitters will balance out the added sweetness. Yum!
—Lamar’s, 1020 E. Martin Luther King Blvd.: There are few cocktails that I turn to here, but they make a mean Old-Fashioned, especially given the heavy hand they pour with.
Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.