This is a guest post from Christopher Hill, owner of the Esquire Tavern in downtown San Antonio.
“The Old Fashioned” cocktail has seen almost as many renovations as San Antonio itself. This classy mixed drink seems to change from bar to bar, but the flavor somehow stays the same. Old recipes called for brandy, but newer recipes call for a specific brand of whiskey or bourbon. Bitters and citrus always make an appearance, but the amounts vary from recipe to recipe. With all the variants and changes, some may wonder what makes a true “Old Fashioned” and why modern bars should even care what the original recipe was. Set your pondering ways aside for a moment to consider the rich history of this classic cocktail. If you’d like a cocktail ready at hand as you read, make the short trip to the Riverwalk and pay Esquire Tavern a visit where we truly mix an honest Old Fashioned.
Now that you have your Old Fashioned in hand, it’s time for a little history. Modern cocktails find their roots in a concoction called “panch”, meaning “five.” The original recipe was a big bucket of cheer made of five primary ingredients: water, sugar, bitters, sour and booze. The specifics of all five ingredients varied regionally depending on what the people of the area found pleasing to ferment and tasty to mix. The initial one-serving version of this punch was perfected and packaged in the Old Fashioned glass (also known as a rocks glass). The drink you hopefully now hold in your hand comes from a long tradition of making old-school hooch more palatable.
As time went on, cocktails started to improve. Mixes began transforming and gaining complexity. Eventually, the famed Jerry Thomas transformed the whole bar experience with his elaborate showmanship, making the process almost as important as the drink itself. Humble people who once only served beer, wine and liquor started looking to their community for the singular element that would set their cocktails apart from competitors. Through the ages, the single serving punch stayed strong in the simple five-ingredient form of the Old Fashioned.
Some bartenders these days may scratch their heads or check online sources for the ingredients of this time-honored cocktail. Other bars, unaware of the Old Fashioned concept, may just serve you whatever liquor they have at hand. At the Esquire Tavern, they are so aware of the Old Fashioned concept that when you order an Old Fashioned, they will even ask you which type of Old Fashioned you prefer: tequila, rye or gin. The Old Fashioned gave rise to the modern cocktail while keeping its own heritage intact. This drink inspired evolution and still remains as relevant as its progeny. Its roots run deep and its heritage strong; it deserves respect and honor. Order an Old Fashioned and witness what only experience can offer.
Christopher Hill, architect, developer and occasional preservationist, refers to himself as the “reluctant restaurateur.” The team he has assembled to put his restaurant, The Esquire Tavern, back on the map in 2011. The bar originally opened in 1933 to celebrate the end of Prohibition and has been a beloved San Antonio watering hole ever since, with a short hiatus from 2006 to 2011.