Book Review: Robert Simonson’s “The Old-Fashioned”

The New York Times once dubbed columnist Robert Simonson “Our man in the liquor-soaked trenches.” If there’s a better sobriquet than that in all the spirituous world, I don’t know what it is.

Simonson has written numerous fascinating articles in the Times about cocktails and spirits over the years. Now he’s written his first monograph on the subject of alcohol, and it’s a book that lives up to his considerable reputation. Dedicated to the history and importance of just one iconic cocktail, it ends up becoming a fascinating story of drinking in America itself.

The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore is a slim volume, but it’s filled with wonderful stories and discourse, all backed up with in-depth research solid enough to make a grad student envious. Naturally, it also contains a substantial volume of recipes for variations on this essential drink, making it the definitive reference on the subject.

A book about a single cocktail might seem a bit too granular, but Simonson makes it work. It helps, of course, that he’s chosen one of the essential drinks, one that was both reflective of a whole new style of drinking, and that had a great influence on the development of cocktails to come.

Once you’ve learned all there is to know about the drink, the second half of the book contains recipes to try on your own. It contains the original Old-Fashioned, of course, as well as the common variations (Brandy, Rum, Scotch, etc.). It also has new creations from a stellar lineup of bartenders, including Brian Miller, Chris Hannah, Erick Castro, Bobby Heugel, Julie Reiner, and Frank Cisneros.

One of my favorites — and a drink that has become a modern classic on its own — is the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned, created by Phil Ward in 2007 at Manhattan’s Death & Co.

Whether you read it for the history or the recipes, The Old-Fashioned is a lovingly-crafted book that earns its place on your shelf.