The first time I saw the word bourbon was when I read it off a bottle in my family’s living room. My dad set it next to him on the side table, splashing the caramel liquid into a glass to sip slowly after a long day of work. The ice cubes clinked around while he swirled it. What I didn’t know at the time was that my father was participating in a centuries-old ritual. Had I remained in my seat situated across from him on the sofa, I would have watched time turn back hundreds of years; much has changed, save for the drink in his hand.

Up until the pioneering work of Jerry Thomas—the first true bartender by modern definition—liquor was commonly enjoyed straight, and cocktails were far from the rhubarb-infused, liquid-smoked recipes in today’s experimental bars. All of the classic drinks in our American repertoire—the Manhattan, the Tom Collins, the Moscow Mule—have a story. Take the Old Fashioned, for instance. In the 1800s, it became popular to add sugar and bitters to rye whiskey for social drinking. The mixing added an element of sophistication, making it more acceptable in social contexts. This was day drinking.

According to Jamion Williams of Repeal & Serve, understanding the history of the cocktail is central to the experience. In fact, he credits this narrative as the fulcrum of what he does at Repeal & Serve, his mixology consultancy business.

“Everybody thinks that the Old Fashioned has whiskey, orange, and cherry muddled together with ice and some sort of sweetener,” says Williams. “Then Jerry Thomas came around and kind of upended everything. Cocktail culture started as we know it today. When that happened, people looked at the whiskey-bitters-sugar thing and said, ‘Man, I wish I could just have it the old fashioned way, I don’t want this new stuff.’ It’s literally the oldest cocktail because it was before cocktail times. There was no orange, no cherry, none of that. The only thing is whiskey, sugar, bitters. But that’s not a very interesting drink if I just have that at a bar.”

His solution? Let tradition inform innovation. To Williams, who studied history in college, these two values are inextricable. “That education point, that’s how you actually improve the culture of a city when it comes to cocktails,” he notes.

When crafting a drink for a customer, Williams says the audience, the meal, and the season are deciding factors: “The season has a lot to do with it. Being in winter, people want spirituous, dark drinks. Now is not the time for a lavender gin fizz. Now is more the time for rum Manhattans or brandy Alexanders. Really dark, decadent, creamy drinks. Things that people associate with splurging.” Once he’s settled on a drink, Williams consults history. When it comes to variations, he tries to maintain the traditional drink in a way so that it still remains recognizable.

When you sit down to a fine drink in these winter weather months, consider its narrative. Where did it come from? You may find your experience enriched, and your connection to the hands that held up the glasses of old ever so slightly deepened.


Applejack Rabbit


In a shaker, combine ¾ maple syrup, ¾ orange juice, ¾ oz. lemon juice, and 2 oz. Applejack.

Shake over ice for ten seconds, then strain into service over one cube of ice.

Garnish with a wheel of orange or a slice of apple.