The Old-Fashioned: A Mad Men Classic

KIMBERLY VOSS PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. She blogs at She is the author of The Food Section (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) and a co-author of Mad Men & Working Women (Peter Lang, 2014)

Photo by Lance Speer

Photo by Lance Speer

The final season of AMC’s Mad Men began this Saturday and will likely include a variety of cocktails popular in the 1960s. Rarely are the glasses empty at the hard-drinking advertising firm.

The popularity of the retro television program has re-ignited an interest in the Old-Fashioned – a cocktail that has a long history – enough so that an entire book, The Old-Fashioned, is devoted to its story.

The drink is often found in the hand of leading man Don Draper – beginning with the first episode of the first season. The show, along with an increased interest in craft cocktails, has fueled an interest in the drink.

The cocktail typically consists of a little sugar, bitters, whiskey and the strip of a lemon peel. It is considered a pre-Prohibition drink that changed after the post-Prohibition years with the addition of fruit.

For decades, the beverage was called a whiskey cocktail, as bartenders in the post-Civil War era began adding additional ingredients such as oranges, cherries and pineapple. Key to the drink is the muddle – the crushing of the solid ingredients with either a wooden or mettle muddler.


Some purists have condemned the fruity additions to the cocktail. As early as 1936, a letter in the New York Times decried the addition of a fruit compote and the resulting increased price of the drink. “Profanation and extortion,” wrote “Old Timer.”

According to some historians, the drink’s heyday was in the late 1890s and early 1900s. This is also allegedly when there was a call to return to the pure drink, thus the cocktail’s name. (The first known print description of an Old-Fashioned was in an 1886 edition of Comment and Dramatic Times.)

In episode three, season three (“My Old Kentucky Home”) of Mad Men, Draper hops over an untended bar at a country club to make a drink for himself and Conrad Hilton. After being unable to find bourbon, Draper aggressively muddles bitters with a sugar cube before adding rye, soda water, and ice and tops it all off with a lemon wedge and cherry. Hilton declares it to be “a hell of a cocktail.”

Old-Fashioneds are especially popular in the Midwest – it is considered the unofficial cocktail of Wisconsin, usually made with brandy. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago and Old-Fashioneds were served with Korbel brandy. The company had little success until the Expo when visiting Wisconsinites of German decent tried the drink and then began buying it in droves.

The drink has regained some popularity in recent years with bars offering updated versions with rye and flavored bourbon versions. Below is a recipe for the Wisconsin Old-Fashioned. I remember getting the toothpick-skewered orange slice with a cherry as a child.

Wisconsin Old-Fashioned

  • 1 packet of sugar (about one teaspoon)
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 ½ ounces of brandy
  • Splash of club soda

Muddle the sugar and bitters with a dash of soda. Add brandy and some ice. Top with more soda. Serve with an orange slice wrapped around the cherry.

Photo by Lance Speer

Photo by Lance Speer


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