A Cocktail, a Colonel, and Some Iffy Claims to the Old-Fashioned

The Old-Fashioned - Robert Simonson

If you have the brass to call yourself a cocktail aficionado, you likely look upon the Old-Fashioned as an old friend. It's been around the block. It's one of the most reliable bitter slings around. The 1948 classic cocktail bible The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks includes it among its six basic drinks, and mixologists look to it as a building-block cocktail before branching out and trying something new. But even the most astute whiskey and brandy drinkers with a penchant for the Old-Fashioned would be hard pressed to name the founder of the famous libation.

Enter The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson. Not only does it serve up dozens of recipe variations, it provides a fabulous and colorful history of the cocktail as it wound its way from Chicago to New York and tip-toed through the speakeasies of Prohibition, along the way shedding absinthe and orange curaçao in favor of the drink's modern whiskey and brandy companions. Included are the boasts of one Colonel Jim Gray, whose rather fantastic claims to having invented the drink seemed all the more odd when he said (with utmost confidence) that "nutmeg" is necessary, and "for heaven's sake, no bitters." His contemporaries thought him strange and his claims stranger, but that didn't stop him from declaring his discovery an historic occasion, on par with the signing of the Magna Carta.

To learn more about the contentious claims to one of America's most famous cocktails, read on.

Excerpts from The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson. 

The Colonel's Claim

No evidence supporting a Chicago claim to the Old-Fashioned would have moved Colonel Jim Gray, a New Yorker of fabulous bluster and an ego as gaudy as the many fantastic waistcoats he owned. Gray presided over the bar at the Fifth Avenue Hotel for nearly thirty years, until it was torn down in April of 1908. At that grand Madison Square political and social center, he served Republican leaders (though he himself was a steadfast Democrat), Civil War generals, and, on one occasion, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe.

Gray identified himself as the father of the Old-Fashioned.

"Well do I remember the first old fashioned whiskey cock­tail made in this house," Colonel Jim told a rapt, if not particularly attentive, reporter from the New York Sun. “It was back in 1881. I don’t say that other people may not have put up stuff they called old fashioned cocktails, but the first, simple, pure, bona fide drink of that description was compounded by me on the date I have mentioned.

"Really, gentlemen," continued the colonel, who liked to lay it on thick, "I consider it a historic incident not to be compared unfavorably with the Battle of Agincourt, the signing of the Magna Carta or the Fall of Odell. General Grant, to the best of my recollection, was the first to smack his lips over that undiluted nectar of Kentucky corn. I myself, and I say it with pride, invented the for­mula for the only genuine old fashioned whiskey cocktail."

Gray was convinced that, with the passing of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, one of the grand Madison Square hostelries of beau monde Manhattan, "there won’t be a place on earth left where a gentleman can get an old fashioned whiskey cocktail." The problem with his boast, at least as related by the Sun article, is that the recipe he shared with the journalist is nothing anyone in the 1910s (or 2010s, for that matter) would recognize as an Old-Fashioned. Gray called for "Loaf sugar, half a lump; Ice, a small cube; Nutmeg, just a sprin­kle; Whiskey, two fingers of Fifth Avenue Special; Shake well and for heaven’s sake, no bitters."

No bitters? Nutmeg? Shaken?

This formula looked as strange to Gray’s contemporaries as it does to us today. And objectors were quick to write to the Sun in worried tones. "Nutmeg!" thundered Jabez P. Spine, an agitated Philadelphian, "and to be well shaken!" A Virginia drinker showed the article to Dr. George Williamson, a DC bartending grandee, who replied, "There must be some mistake here. I cannot believe that my esteemed colleague gave this as the recipe for an old fash­ioned cocktail. He meant it for an old fashioned toddy, and the writer must have confused the two."

Indeed, that does seem to be the likeliest explanation. For there’s no doubt that Gray knew how to make an Old-Fashioned and was famous for it (along with his toddy, and a Medford Rum Punch). Other, later newspaper accounts attested to the fact that his way with the drink was beyond reproach. That he invented the drink, though -- only Gray himself made that claim.

The Pendennis Club Claim

Like many of the cocktail books published near the end of Prohibi­tion, 1931’s Old Waldorf Bar Days contained a recipe for the Old- Fashioned. But its author, Albert Stevens Crockett, also tacked on a line of history. He stated that the cocktail was “introduced by, or in honor of, Col. James E. Pepper” and was “the invention of a bar­tender at the famous Pendennis Club.”

That throwaway line has caused a lot of consternation. To this day, the Pendennis Club, a men’s club founded in Louisville in 1881, claims to be the birthplace of the drink. It is the only place that makes such a boast.

The club has gone so far as to produce a brief paper on the sub­ject. This 2009 document insists that the drink the club calls its own “was different from the run-of-the-mill ‘old fashioned’ cocktails then being requested and consumed.” The paper lists what it called “sev­eral distinctive components,” including the exclusive use of Kentucky bourbon instead of other spirits; the use of three fruits (lemon, orange, and cherry), and the fact that those fruits are muddled along with the simple syrup and bitters before ice and the bourbon are added.

If bartenders at the Pendennis were in fact muddling fruit in the 1880s, they were doing so decades before that became common practice in preparing Old-Fashioneds. No known cocktail books published between 1888 (the first appearance of a recipe for the Old-Fashioned) and Prohibition contained such an instruction, and it’s a bit far-fetched to believe that the many skilled bartenders who authored those volumes were all getting the Pendennis Club’s inven­tion wrong. Not only that, but in the cocktail book published by a for­mer manager at the Pendennis Club, 1914’s Drinks by the Swiss-born Jacques Straub, the Old-Fashioned is listed, but Straub makes no mention that the drink came from the club that once employed him for two decades, as one might expect he would have.

More confusedly, the club’s insistence that muddled fruit is part of the classic recipe clashes directly with its primary source, Old Waldorf Bar Days. The recipe in that book makes no mention of fruit whatso­ever. If Colonel Pepper gave the recipe used at the Pendennis Club to the Waldorf Hotel, as the book attests, then he gave them the wrong information, at least according to the version described by the Pen­dennis Club. (Straub's recipe also omits the fruit.)

There are further issues that cast suspicion on the Pendennis Club’s authority. Old Waldorf Bar Days is presented as a compila­tion of the drinks made at the Waldorf Hotel, which was built in 1893 at the current site of the Empire State Building. Mentions of the Old- Fashioned Cocktail were common enough in newspapers by that point that Colonel Pepper’s recipe would surely have been greeted as old news by the Waldorf’s knowledgeable barmen.

Beyond Old Waldorf Bar Days, the Pendennis has only the oral accounts of a couple Pendennis bartenders to back up its claim. It is, after all, a private club. There are no minutes, no archives, no printed menus. The organization kept its name out of the papers, so there are no pre-Prohibition news items about the cocktail’s link to the club. There is, in fact, no known written mention of the club’s connection to the Old-Fashioned until the Waldorf book appeared.

I report all this out of a journalist’s sense of due diligence. For at heart, there is really no need for a counterargument to the Penden­nis Club’s hypothesis that they invented the drink. If the Pendennis Club were laying claim to, say, the Widow’s Kiss or the Jack Rose, one might be willing to believe them, for at one moment those drinks didn’t exist; and then, suddenly, with the arrival of an ingredient or skilled bartender, they did. The Old-Fashioned is a much more com­plicated case. Being an outgrowth of the Whiskey Cocktail, it evolved more than it arrived. Claiming that one bartender created it is a bit like saying a single person invented jazz.