No Time to Mess Around

It’s been a busy couple of weeks around here, and the future doesn’t look much better. Between family obligations, household issues and other life matters that deserve no further attention in this space, there hasn’t been much time to ponder vital Cocktail Chronicles-type questions–such as, “how much Benedictine do you really need to use in a Derby?,” or “what happens if you soak a vanilla bean in Lemon Hart Demerara overproof for a week, then add muscovado syrup to bring it down to a reasonable proof and let it age for a month?”

A hectic time, as you can tell.

But even on hectic days, thirst comes calling. And the busier and more stressful the day (or the slower and lazier–funny how much those sometimes have in common), the more pressing is the need for a straightforward, no-nonsense chin-bracer–the sort of drink that requires little to no effort to make, but offers unparalleled excellence in its ability to moisten the clay with the utmost efficiency and style. On these sorts of days, only one drink will do: the Old Fashioned.

True to its name, the Old Fashioned is a reaaally old drink–it predates Jerry Thomas, stretching back into the Dark Ages of American mixology. But I’ll spare you the historic details–did I mention I’ve been busy?–and get right down to business.

There are several ways to make an Old Fashioned; most of them, unfortunately, are wrong. While I usually try to steer clear of the ideological arguments that frequently break out over various cocktails, the Old Fashioned is such a key weapon in any mixological arsenal that I feel it’s important to make an exception and throw down the Cocktail Chronicles’ guidelines for making a proper drink. To wit:

  • No water or soda water shall be added to the drink (aside from the few drops–DROPS!– necessary to dissolve the sugar). If you’re a simple syrup-type person, first, recognize you’re not being completely authentic–then, pull out a rich 2:1 demerara syrup, or an old-style gomme syrup, if you’ve got any on hand. Whatever you use, use it sparingly–the Old Fashioned is not meant to be overly sweet.
  • No fruit shall be muddled in the drink. Following on the above rule, an Old Fashioned is about whiskey, unsullied and undiluted–mashing up a bunch of oranges and day-glo cherries in the glass before adding the spirit is, in my humble estimation, a crime against nature. I know, everybody does it that way now, and it’s hard to order an Old Fashioned in a bar without getting a bunch of fruity goo floating in a sea of whiskey-flavored seltzer. But shouldn’t it be possible to create some sort of upswell of support where we restore the default on the Old Fashioned to the no-soda-no-muddling side? I mean, it can always be added to the drink for those who lack the intestinal fortitude to consume a real cocktail, but in the name of good whiskey and educated drinking, couldn’t the baseline be the good version, as pure as mother’s milk, saving the watery slime for those who actually like it enough to ask for it?
  • Break out the good stuff. Not the great stuff–what, are you nuts?–but use a decent whiskey in the Old Fashioned. Recently I’ve been enjoying the bonded Old Granddad in these–it seems fitting, somehow–but I’m also fond of Old Fashioneds made with Wild Turkey 101, Weller 12-year-old, Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark. The drink is quite good with rye, too (another point in the OF’s favor), but you want one with a little assertiveness to it, such as Wild Turkey Rye or Van Winkle Family Reserve (I’ve heard the bonded Rittenhouse is excellent, though I have yet to lay hands on a bottle).
  • For garnish, all you need is a strip of orange or lemon peel (if you just can’t get past the smushing-the-fruit thing, toss the peel in the glass when you first start out with the sugar, water and bitters, then work it out of your system through the honest labor of muddling). If you’re a bartender and you serve an Old Fashioned to me with full fruit regalia, I won’t make a fuss–add the orange wheel and cherry if you feel the need, but just place them on the top so I can flick them aside once you’ve turned your back.

Is creating a by-the-books Old Fashioned, sans fizzy water and fruity muck, the most important thing in the world? Of course not. But when you’ve had a bitch of a day, and a look at the calendar reveals a whole sequence of them still ahead of you, it can sure seem that way.

Old Fashioned

  • 1 smallish sugar cube (or 1/2 to 1 tsp sugar, to taste) OR 1-2 tsp gomme syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura or Fee’s Old-Fashioned Aromatic Bitters
  • a few drops of water
  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye (or 3–what the hell)
  • strip of orange or lemon peel

Place the sugar in an Old Fashioned glass, moisten with the water and bitters then muddle until dissolved (chuck the fruit peel in, if you like–I don’t). Add the whiskey, give it a quick stir, then add a big chunk of ice or two and stir again. Hit it.

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12 Responses to No Time to Mess Around

  1. I’m in your camp on the OF. Here’s some sage advice which I’ve yet to try, as I fear it would get me something hot these days. Probably worked better in ’46:

    “If you object to the fruit salad, festoons of maraschino cherries, flotsam and jetsam of orange rind and canopies of Japanese parasols and American flags which are served with Old Fashioned cocktails in many places, it is possible to obviate all this nuisance value by simply asking for a Bourbon Toddy.”
    - Lucius Beebe, The Stork Club Bar Book

  2. I find this to be one of the most commonly massacred cocktails. Last week I ordered an old fashioned (at the terrific Old Town Tavern in NY), and orange *juice* was actually added to the cocktail. Ugh.

  3. The Sazerac and the OF are definitely siblings, both harking back to a day when a cocktail was nothing but straight hooch smoothed out with a little sugar, bitters and water (ice), with maybe a tiny kicker of high-octane stuff like absinthe or fruity stuff like curacao to make it act lively in the glass.

    Keep in mind the vital differences, though, in addition to the use of absinthe:

    * Sazeracs are properly made with rye, not bourbon, while Old Fashioneds can go either way (Sazeracs may also be made with cognac–this is probably the original version)

    * Sazeracs also call for Peychaud’s bitters, which really take the drink’s flavor in another direction (most Sazerac recipes–mine not included–don’t call for Angostura). Combined with the absinthe, Peychaud’s defines the Sazerac.

  4. Updating my previous comment, so far, asking for Bourbon Toddies has only yielded a tragically mistaken Bourbon Tonic and a series of strange and vaguely confrontational looks from bartenders. I’m fairly convinced that the only way to effectively order an old fashioned is to ask for “Bourbon with bitters and sugar” and to let them sort it out. And yes, there was one bartender who — protestations fruit notwithstanding — insisted that I had to have a twist of lemon rind and an orange slice planted on the rim.

  5. My understanding is that you can Old-Fashioned any spirit; you could make one with applejack, brandy, rum, gin, etc; it’s just that whisky is the most common.

  6. Quite correct–the Improved Holland Gin Cock-Tail I listed a while back is merely a variation on the Old-Fashioned Gin Cocktail. Today, of course, an Old Fashioned implies whiskey of some sort, so I’m lapsing into current parlance (though I refuse to lapse into the current mixological trend for mushy fruit and soda).

    And if anybody hasn’t tried one, an Old-Fashioned Rum Cocktail (using a nice aged rum such as Appleton Extra or any of a number of others) is an excellent way to enjoy the spirit.

  7. Gentlemen, I must respectfully disagree. While I embrace the idea that there should never be more than a few drops of water/soda added (and always just to help melt the sugar), I can’t imagine an Old Fashioned without the hint of bitter orange and sweet cherry the muddling of said items produces.

    If you’re not keen on “fruit salad” in the bottom of the glass (you must really hate Mojitos), you could always strain the mixture into a glass with a few cubes of fresh ice.

    If you really want to be purists about it, perhaps we should call this version “Old Fashioned No Two”.

  8. To say that a drink should be made one way and one way only is ridiculous.

    Paul’s recipe is very close to the way I make the drink. I use an orange peel though.

    The oldest recipe that I know of is from “Modern American Drinks” published back in the late 1800′s.

    It calls for a small cube of sugar with
    a bit of water, two dashes of Angostura bitters, a piece ice, a lemon-peel, and one shot of whiskey.

    I have tended bar for over ten years at night clubs, jazz bars, martini bars, etc. The muddled version with a cherry and orange wedge is the norm.

    Some customers like it one way while others like it another; and they all get offended if you don’t make it the “right” way.

    My advice is; if you want it a certain way ask for it a certain way. The bartender is not a mind reader. If you happen to get a good bartender he/she should remember how you like it after that first encounter.

  9. This is great! I like this recipe. I currently use two different recipes, one that I call pre-prohibition (very similar to yours), and one that I call post prohibition (has a cherry and and orange slice, but non-muddled). I agree that there is way too much mashing happening. And the soda! Don’t get me started on the soda. If I have a bad OF I always contact the bar later and complain.

    Rittenhouse 100 works great for a rye, and is very affordable.

  10. One of the most famous cocktails in the world. I always wonder there are so many recipes of this cocktail. But where can be find the ORIGINAL one?

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