Did The Old Fashioned Really Start Because Of A Private Social Club?

Cocktail history can be a messy thing to investigate. Many tales are passed down from bar to bar and change over time depending on who you ask and the availability of access to information. The Old Fashioned is one of the most popular classic cocktails and dates back to the late 1800s. Josh Cameron, a bartender with the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) wrote, "To make an old Fashioned is to attach oneself to history." The name of the drink is part of a rebellion against changing cocktail habits over history, especially once Prohibition ended and a new era of cocktails began. It enjoyed renewed interest after Hollywood star Ryan Gosling masterfully prepared the drink for Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and was consumed regularly by Don Draper on the hit television show "Mad Men."

An enthusiast book, Whiskey Cocktails: Rediscovered Classics and Contemporary Craft Drinks Using the World's Most Popular Spirit wrote, "Traditionally, an Old-Fashioned involves muddling sugar and bitters in the bottom of a glass, then adding a citrus twist and blended whiskey." Most people agree on the recipe with slight variations, but one common dispute is whether the Old Fashioned really started because of a private social club.

The disputed origin story

In the 1931 book, "Old Waldorf Bar Days," by Albert Stevens Crocket, Crocket cites the 1881 Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, and Col. James E. Pepper as the origin of the cocktail. Pepper was the third generation family member to produce "Old Pepper'" whiskey and was a Master Distiller. The book is one of the oldest records available on the history of the beverage and has been embraced by many in the hospitality industry as well as by well-known figures, such as Robert Hess. 

In fact, in 2015 the Mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, proclaimed the Old Fashioned "Louisville's Official Cocktail." During June of every year, the "Gateway to the South" celebrates Old Fashioned Fortnight and has used the cocktail to help draw tourism to the area. Cities making proclamations over food have become a common theme over the years, with disputed origin stories becoming embroiled in city politics. Older evidence would suggest the Pendennis Club was not the creator of the Old Fashioned cocktail. 

Despite the declaration and celebrations, there were earlier mentions of the drink in history, including in a February 1880 article in the Chicago Tribune before the Pendennis Club even existed stating, "Hot-whiskies, Scotch and Irish, particularly the latter, sour-mashes, and old-fashioned cocktails were drank in honor of the event." Pendennis Club may be the longest-lasting tribute to the cocktail, but it may no actually be the origin of the drink, historically. Unfortunately, the exact place the drink was created, when it was first served, or its founder is not recorded in history.