Happy World Whisky Day! This holiday really takes me back. All the way to Babylon and Mesopotamia in 2000 BC! Evidence of fermented, distilled grain (whisky!) exists from archeological sites in those regions dating all the way back to those ancient times. There’s a rich history which follows, but let’s fast forward three thousand years to about 1000 AD when Irish and Scottish monks began to ferment grain mash and introduced what we know today as “modern” whisky – and gave us the name we now use as well.
It's no wonder some experience “whisky” as a holy experience, considering the name is derived from the Gaelic (the Celtic language spoken in the Scottish Highlands) “uisge beatha” – the “water of life”. Drink enough of that water and it’ll kill you. Ironies aside, a thousand years ago getting drunk might have been as close to heaven on earth as you got. Early American pioneers brought the water with them and adopted the Irish spelling, with an “e”: whiskey. In the mid nineteenth century, a corn whiskey using the Kentucky style of fermentation and distillation was first labeled “Bourbon whiskey”. Some suggest this American term came from New Orleans, where Bourbon Street was the place to get your whiskey fix – but the street might well have been named for the spirit, like the chicken and the egg.
For this old fashioned spirit we will have an Old Fashioned cocktail, paired with the rare "Whisky Bottle" puzzle box by Japanese master Akio Kamei. I’ve discussed the Old Fashioned a few times before, but here’s the original, in its purest original form, and how it got there. Cocktails in general evolved from the medicinal tonics created by old time pharmacists and known in general as “bitters”. These were the miracle elixirs which would work wonders. You could stop by for a shot of these herbal, bitter concoctions, perhaps diluted with some water to make them more palatable. Add a little sugar, more palatable. It didn’t take long for someone to throw in a bit of spirit too, and viola, the first cocktail was likely consumed in America sometime in the very early 1800s, as the precursor to the “Old Fashioned”.
While the cocktail is arguably an American invention, its origins existed a century earlier in England. The concept of the cocktail was present in London in the early 1700’s already, where bitter elixirs where being mixed with sweet wine or brandy. And the name, “cocktail” was likely derived from Britain as well. The cocktail historian David Wondrich, who has searched for the term’s provenance for decades, explains this bit of wacky parlance, which was discovered in a satirical political cartoon from a 1798 London newspaper. Cocktail was slang for “ginger”, which in turn referred to a stimulant added to a drink in order to lift ones spirit and energy. Ginger or hot pepper usually did the trick. The term “cocktail” came from the practice, by horse dealers of the day, to place a bit of ginger up the horse’s rear, thus making it cock its tail and appear spirited, which made it appear more valuable. Drink recipes adapted the term, suggesting the addition of a pinch or two of “cock-tail”, and that term replaced “ginger” over time. And there you have it, the too absurd to not be true story of why we call it a “cocktail.” Cheers?
The Old Fashioned
2 oz of your favorite whisk(e)y
1 brown sugar cube
Place the sugar cube into a mixing glass and saturate with the bitters. Muddle together, then add the whiskey and ice. Stir to dilute and chill, then strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a brandied cherry, an orange wedge, or just keep it plain and simple.
For prior Old Fashioned variations see:
For more about the Whisky Bottle puzzle see:
Boxes and Booze: Call Me Old Fashioned