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The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

Our hiatus into frivolous drinking over, it’s now time to turn our attention to some more serious entrez in to the world of cocktails.  With this post, we take on what David Wondrich describes as on of “the four pillars of wisdom” in his Esquire Drinks book (we already did the Daiquiri, the Manhattan is coming up soon, and you’ll have to look elsewhere for the Martini)

Mr Wondrich has a genuinely entertaining rant (almost rising to the level of screed or possibly manifesto) on the history and molestation of the Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail in Esquire Drinks.  On the history end of things he points out that the cock tail (a morning drink at the time) dates back to 1806 and consisted simply of small amounts of sugar and water and large amounts of booze, also noting that ice started appearing in drinks in the 1830’s.  Both of these facts he uses to debunk the idea that the Old-Fashioned was an invention of Louisville’s famous Pendennis Club, which didn’t come about until 1881.  On the mistreatment end of things, he points out the absurdity of the practice of garnishing such a venerable drink like Carmen Miranda’s hat, complete with cherry, orange, and even pineapple, not to mention the further offense of mangling up such a garnish with the muddler.  He didn’t even mention that there were bottled “Old Fashioned Mixes” (who knows what might be in there. Certainly nothing that belongs in an Old-Fashioned).  So,  if you have been subjected to one of these versions of the drink, doubtless you are wondering why all the awe and veneration of this drink.  Well, first have a look a the recipe.

The Old-Fashioned (aka The Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail)

  • 1 cube of sugar (or 1 tsp of loose sugar)
  • 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 splash of seltzer or water
  • 2 1/2 oz. of rye
  • 1-2 large ice cubes
  • Twist of lemon as a garnish.

Place the sugar cube in the bottom of a rocks glass and soak with the bitters.  Add the splash of seltzer and muddle.  Add the ice and rye and stir.  Garnish with the lemon twist.

So why is this one of the great cocktails.  Well, in a word, simplicity.  It has that amazing alchemy of a few simple ingredients that magically come together.

A couple of notes on the Old Fashioned…

First, on the current revival, complete with Bartender provided theatrics taking 5 minutes or more to make the silly thing.  The idea is that the “correct way to make the drink is to muddle the sugar and bitters, add the ice and add a small amount of whiskey , stir.  Add a little more whiskey and stir some more.  Repeat until you have added all the whiskey and all the sugar is dissolve, and likely your friends have gone out for a beer somewhere else.  There is some debate on whether this is necessary or not.   The idea behind the ritual is that this allow all of the sugar to dissolve and a bunch of the ice to melt to thin the drink a bit, so the alternative is to start with an equivalent amount of sugar as simple syrup (about 1 1/2 tsp) instead of the cube of sugar.  We tried it both ways, and found that the simple syrup, while making a fine drink lacked a little something.  All the stirring, though also lacked something from our final drink and made my hand sore.  What we found is actually a third hybrid method made for the best cocktail.   Our method was to muddle the sugar and bitters with a splash of seltzer and then add all of the whiskey and the ice and stir a goodish amount (say 30 seconds). This gets the drink cold, thins it a bit and dissolves some but not all of the sugar.  This made for a more complex and interesting cocktail (and I think accounts for some of the magic).  It starts off stronger and less sweet and then as you drink it (rather slowly because of the strength), more of the ice melts and more of the sugar dissolves, so the drink at the end is mellower and sweeter.

As for the choice of whiskey, most recipes traditionally called for bourbon (except in Wisconsin, where brandy, or presumably most anything else is common).  I personally agree with David Wondrich, though, that bourbon (especially the cheap stuff) is a little too sweet and smooth to begin with.  For this to be a great drink, it really needs the edginess of rye.

Finally, the name.  It’s a little blurred in the mists of history, but generally is thought to be a contrast with the “new” cocktails-the Martini and the Manhattan, which were made with vermouth.

Made properly (without massacred fruit remains), it’s a cocktail worthy of its name.  You should definitely give one a try.


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