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Originally published Friday, March 23, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Old-fashioned or newfangled, the old-fashioned is back

The arrival of "Mad Men" dovetailed with the resurgence of this grand old cocktail, as mixologists and laymen alike reclaimed the potion. "Mad Men" returns to TV on AMC, Sunday, March 25, after a 17-month hiatus. Fans may want to raise a glass of Don Draper's preferred drink.

The New York Times

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NEW YORK — As is his habit, Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," is revealing few details about the fifth season of the hit series, which will return to AMC on Sunday after a 17-month absence. We don't know if the charismatic sphinx Don Draper has married his secretary or pulled his flailing advertising firm out of the fire. But one prediction is a safe bet: Draper will dip his beak into an old-fashioned or three.

The old-fashioned, a drink with a history nearly as long as the United States', has been his go-to embalmer since Season 1, Episode 1. In the 1960s, when the series takes place, that cocktail was commonplace. By 2000, however, it had fallen into relative obscurity. "Twelve years ago, it was nowhere," the cocktail historian David Wondrich said. "You could go into an old-man bar, and if you insisted, they would make you one."

The arrival of "Mad Men" dovetailed with the resurgence of this grand old cocktail, as mixologists and laymen alike reclaimed the potion and held it aloft like an artifact from a lost, great civilization. "The old-fashioned has been a touchstone of the cocktail movement the last 10 years," said Robert Hess, a drinks author and old-fashioned fanatic whose website, DrinkBoy, helped to generate turn-of-the-21st-century online discussions about the drink.

A quick scan of today's drinking scene illustrates the cocktail's new currency. It's a rare craft cocktail bar whose debut menu doesn't feature either the old-fashioned or a modern twist on the drink's elegant formula of whiskey, water, sugar and bitters. Seersucker, the Southern-flavored restaurant in Carroll Gardens, recently acquired a liquor license, and placed a sorghum-sweetened old-fashioned at the top of the cocktail list. It's become its most popular drink.

The newly revamped Monkey Bar just introduced a riff on the old-fashioned called KYPX, a blend of walnut-oil-washed bourbon, Pedro Ximenez sherry and cherry bitters. The Rum House, in the theater district, offers two rye and two bourbon versions of the cocktail. JBird, which opened in January, dedicates an entire page of its bar menu to the old-fashioned and its variants. The best seller: the honey-nut old-fashioned, a creation of the Los Angeles bartender Marcos Tello that uses roasted-peanut-infused bourbon.

The drink's fresh prominence was underlined a few weeks ago when the freelance booze evangelist Martin Doudoroff unveiled Old Fashioned 101 (http://oldfashioned101.com/), a how-to website that lays down the law on the drink's proper architecture.

"I have personally converted a variety of people who are younger than I into regular old-fashioned drinkers," he said. "They are generally people who have developed some appreciation for the spirits involved. It's a harder sell for people who want more interference between them and the liquor."

As visible as the cocktail has become, the surge doesn't approach its glory days. "Its heyday was in the late 1800s, early 1900s," Hess said. That's also the period when the drink acquired the so-square-it's-hip handle by which we now know it. For decades before that, it was simply called a whiskey cocktail. But when the whiz-bang bartenders of the post-Civil War days started getting too fancy with their add-ons, cocktail purists began calling for a return to sanity. (Cocktail purists seem always to be upset about the current state of the old-fashioned.)

Wondrich points to an 1886 edition of the publication Comment and Dramatic Times as the earliest known print description of the newly christened "Old Fashioned."

"The modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it," said the editor, Leander Richardson. "A bartender in one of the most widely known New York establishments for the dispensation of drinks was telling me the other day that there had set in an unmistakable stampede in favor of old-fashioned cocktails." Richardson then defined what the standard-bearers were after: a drink "nearly everywhere recognized as being made with a little sugar, a little bitters, a lump of ice, a piece of twisted lemon peel and a good deal of whiskey. It has no absinthe, no chartreuse and no other flavoring extract injected into it."

By 1900, recipes for the old-fashioned cocktail or old-fashioned whiskey cocktail were common in cocktail manuals. But the drinks' moment of purity was short-lived. Books began to call for an orchard of fruit: orange, cherry and — dear God — pineapple. These florid garnishes stayed safely perched on the rim of the glass for a long time. But at some point after Prohibition's repeal they fell into the soup and got mashed into a messy slurry. Dale DeGroff, a veteran barman, remembers building the drink that way in the 1970s. This, say absolutists, was the old-fashioned's darkest hour.

"It had to be among the most disgusting drinks I encountered when I first tended bar," the cocktail historian Anistatia Miller said. "Orange, lemon and maraschino cherry muddled with sugar and bitters, then topped with ice, whiskey and soda. That's how I was taught to make them. And for the life of me, I couldn't believe anyone would drink them."

Curiously, it's hard to find a cocktail book from that era that specifically calls for the fruit to be muddled. Greg Boehm, the owner of Mud Puddle Books, which reprints old cocktail volumes, has enough antique drinking tomes to fill a special room at the New York Public Library. (His favorite drink? The old-fashioned, of course.) He found one guide that came close: the 1956 "Esquire Drink Book," which instructs you to put orange, lemon, pineapple and cherry in the drink, and top all with club soda.

Surely, Don Draper, the essence of the Esquire Man, would have been acquainted with this compendium. Draper has been shown making his preferred drink, step by step, only once, in Season 3. His execution wasn't the daintiest, but it was probably period-correct. He used rye, diluted the drink with club soda and muddled the cherry.

Nobody ever said Don Draper was perfect.

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