If you want to get really good at making drinks, it’s important to develop a deep knowledge of your raw materials. Often, what distinguishes the best Martini you’ve ever had from an average Martini is that the bartender knew to pair the characteristics of a particular gin with the characteristics of a particular vermouth. Many of the classic tiki drinks created by Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic were only slight variations on a few basic formulas, differing primarily in the types of rum used. And in today’s cocktail world it’s often the recognition of a counterintuitive similarity between two disparate spirits that leads bartenders to create new variations on time honored drinks by substituting their base spirits. If you know your spirits inside and out, the world of cocktails is open to you.
Unfortunately, distilled spirits can be difficult to get to know on their own terms. Most are far too strong to drink neat and taste much other than burn. As we’ve seen previously, dilution can help make a fiery spirit manageable and release its natural aromatics, but dilution alone can also make a once vital dram feel a touch limp. What the would-be aficionado needs is a way to soften the edges of an unruly spirit so that its nuances can be appreciated without robbing it of its personality and zing.
Enter the Old Fashioned: so named because it is essentially the original cocktail—the no-frills combination of liquor, sugar, bitters, and water that 19th century Americans would have had in mind when they ordered a capital-c Cocktail (and which old timers eventually found themselves having to ask for by a more specific name as bartenders became more fanciful with their concoctions). A well-made Old Fashioned is, as I’ve heard the Brooklyn bartender and writer St. John Frizzell say, the drink equivalent of taking a nice cut of steak and seasoning it with a bit of salt and pepper. It keeps the spirit front and center, but makes it more palatable by simultaneously toning it down and enlivening it.
The basic formula, as recorded by the revered 19th century barman Jerry Thomas, and slightly modernized by David Wondrich in his book “Imbibe,” is this:
2 ounces of whiskey
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of water
1 or 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
A piece of lemon peel
As Don Draper famously demonstrated to Conrad Hilton, the Old Fashioned is historically a built drink, meaning it’s assembled in place and stirred in the drinking vessel (preferably a short, thick bottomed Old Fashioned glass) rather than in a separate mixing glass. That said, I prefer to make mine in a mixing glass and strain it into the serving glass—partly so I can use a generous pile of ice while stirring, partly so I can do a properly vigorous stir without making a mess, and partly because I like to serve the drink with a big block of ice rather than smaller cubes (the Tovolo King Cube tray is a great way to make large ice blocks that fit perfectly into an Old Fashioned glass). The sugar goes in first, followed by a splash of water, which, with the help of a few quick stirs, dissolves the sugar and creates a coarse simple syrup. Next comes a couple dashes of bitters, the booze, and some ice. Stir the whole thing well with a fluid motion and then strain it into a glass over ice. As a final touch, squeeze the lemon peel over the glass to extract some oils and then rub it along the rim of the glass before garnishing the drink with it. Your Old Fashioned is ready to serve.
As is often the case with simple recipes, connoisseurs tend to have strong opinions about what constitutes a proper Old Fashioned. It’s a drink whose very name, after all, practically celebrates curmudgeonry, and it doesn’t help that its devoteés have long endured bastardized renditions involving soda water, excessively sweet syrups, fruit, and other distractions. Purism notwithstanding, even staunch classicists have been known to take some liberties with the format. Wondrich mentions, for example, that he likes to use an orange peel in a bourbon Old Fashioned and lemon peel for one made with rye. I prefer to actually muddle a bit of peel in the sugar syrup to release more of the citrus oils into the drink before adding the rest of the ingredients. And the bitters part of the equation seems to be a popular avenue for Old Fashioned innovation—orange bitters are a common alternative to Angostura, and the bar at the Brooklyn restaurant Prime Meats mixes perhaps my favorite Old Fashioned ever using pear bitters made from the fruit of a tree behind their building.
Still, if, as I said before, the Old Fashioned’s simplicity makes it a perfect vehicle for spirit appreciation, why not loosen up even more and use it to enjoy spirits other than whiskey? The fogeys may scoff, but Jerry Thomas himself published Old Fashioned recipes based on whiskey, aged Dutch gin (a.k.a genever), and brandy (the brandy Old Fashioned is, incidentally, very much alive and well in Wisconsin, where it’s practically the state drink). In our own time, creative bartenders have applied the basic formula to showcase a variety of different spirits. In his book “And a Bottle of Rum,” for example, Wayne Curtis gives a recipe for a rum Old Fashioned, recommending the use of a medium-bodied rum like Mount Gay or Appleton Estate (I like Ron Zacapa myself), an orange peel, and Regan’s Orange Bitters. Even more adventurous is the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, created by Phil Ward of the Manhattan bar Death & Co: an ounce and half of reposado tequila, a half ounce of mezcal, agave nectar (in place of the sugar), Angostura bitters, and a flamed orange peel. Practically any aged spirit lends itself well to the Old Fashioned treatment.
As you can see, the Old Fashioned is an ideal drink for the journeyman bartender: simple enough to make at home with only a few ingredients, straightforward enough to aid in developing the palate, and versatile enough to maintain its appeal over time, and in many ways is the kernel formula most modern cocktails are built on. Try making a few for yourself. Don’t be surprised if before too long more complicated possibilities suggest themselves to you.
Part of American Drink’s Old Fashioned Week