The Improved Whiskey Cocktail

World Cocktail Day

Your cocktail calendar entry for: May
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The Improved Whiskey Cocktail is our Drink of the Day for World Cocktail Day.  Every May 13 is World Cocktail Day and we’re looking for something classic, a drink that goes back to the original definition of a cocktail but adds a wee bit more.  The Improved Whiskey Cocktail recipe is really just a variation on an Old Fashioned, so it fits. And it provides an opportunity to talk a bit about “improved” cocktails.

Sure, May 13 has other things going on as well:  Ecuador became independent in 1830.  The Great Comet of 1861 was discovered.  Winston Churchill made his famous 1940 “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech.  But after all, this is The Drunkard’s Almanac so we’ll run with the cocktail-centric view

Where does the word “cocktail” come from?

It was May 13, 1806 that the definition of the word “cock-tail” as a drink was published in a New York newspaper, The Balance and Columbian Repository.  It was defined as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”  This is distinguished from a “sling” by the presence of bitters.  That’s a historic event to The Drunkard’s Almanac.

You may be wondering how on earth the drink got the name cocktail.  We can thank the noted historian David Wondrich for unearthing a good explanation, and by his reckoning it has to do with ginger.  Yes, ginger like you can buy at the supermarket.  Back in 1798 the phrase was “cock-tail.”  It was defined in Francis Groses’ 1785 work A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.  There he explains the term as inserting a ginger suppository into a horse “to make him lively and carry his tail well.”  Basically, it means a horse dealer would jam a piece of ginger in there before exhibiting a very annoyed beast.  Guess a raised or “cocked-up” tail was seen as a sign of a spirited horse.  Grose goes on to add that the term is “used figuratively for encouraging or spiriting one up.”

How “cock-tail” morphed into becoming the slang for a drink rather than a horse suppository is unclear.  It may be because cocktails were originally considered morning drinks, a bracer to face the day.  While this will surely cock one’s tail, your faithful correspondent prefers to stick with coffee and oatmeal.  No doubt the horses appreciated us dropping the ginger trick.  Nonetheless, the term stuck.

The Improved Whiskey Cocktail

The Old Fashioned is one obvious answer to the Drink of the Day question.  After all, it is precisely the original recipe for the cocktail.  Booze, sugar, bitters.  Pretty simple.  We could go that way, but never being shy about something new we’re going to move to the Improved Whiskey Cocktail.  You see, in 1856 the updated edition of Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tenders Guide had an appendix of “improved” versions of familiar cocktails made with whiskey, brandy or some other base spirit.  Let’s face it; there were only so many base spirits and limiting oneself to the original cocktail formula started to get boring.

This started the whole concept of slight variations in cocktails, a predecessor to the Mr. Potato Head school of mixology.  The improved cocktails employed additional flavoring elements such as maraschino liqueur, absinthe or curacao, either alone or in combination.  The Improved Holland cocktail and the Old Barrel are other examples.  The recipe for the Improved Whiskey cocktail is really just an Old Fashioned with some Maraschino and Absinthe added.  We created our own tasty version of an Old Fashioned using bacon-washed bourbon for National Tater Tot Day.

That leaves the improved cocktails as just a slightly elaborated version of old standby cocktails.  They represent a first step from dead simple drinks and a first move toward the experimentation that brought us many new drinks.

Improved Whiskey cocktail

Improved Whiskey Cocktail

As usual, we use only ordinary household supplies.  You’ll note, as you peruse the ingredient list, that until we’re adding the maraschino liqueur and absinthe it’s just an Old Fashioned.  Indeed, the “improved” aspect comes from the time of invention, when this was considered an improvement on the original.
5 from 1 vote


  • Old Fashioned Glass


  • 2 oz Rye whiskey or bourbon whiskey or if you’re feeling brave do a split base and make it 1 oz of each.
  • ¼ oz simple syrup
  • 2 dash Peychaud’s bitters
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters (but here our Chief Protocol Officer made the acceptable substitute of Miracle Mile Bitters Co. Forbidden Bitters.
  • ¼ oz Luxardo Maraschino liqueur
  • 1 tsp Absinthe
  • Lemon twist garnish


  • Combine the ingredients through the bitters in your trusty mixing glass and note that you’ve now assembled an Old Fashioned.
  • Add the maraschino liqueur and absinthe and admire the fact that you’re now on the verge of enjoying an Improved Whiskey Cocktail.
  • Add ice and stir until frosty cold.
  • Strain into Old Fashioned glass over one large cube.
  • Garnish with lemon twist.
  • Drink.
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