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11/2011 Doing the Old Fashioned Right

The Old Fashioned. Credit: Drew Long.

by Drew Long, Guest Writer

Cocktails, the classic ones, invoke an era, an earlier age. The martini belongs to Dean and Frank and Frederick Henry. The sazerac evokes a New Orleans before the T-shirt hakwers and before Katrina. The old fashioned, well the old fashioned seems to be of the sixties and seventies. Heady days for sure, but let’s not forget that in addition to the civil rights movement and the fall of Nixon, there was also Disco and shag carpeting.

It was during this time that a fine old cocktail had its last great stand and suffered for it. Like polyester clothing, bartenders and household mixologists couldn’t resist putting their own garish spins on the drink. Unfortunately for the drink and the rest of us, the old fashioned was from then on saddled with cherry-red cherries and slices of orange. It was more whiskey fruit salad than a proper drink.

If you haven’t read Troy Patterson’s excellent Slate piece on the old fashioned you’re missing out. It was revelatory (at least for me). I’m a sucker for whiskey drinks, but I’ve steered clear of the old fashioned and its fussy fruits. But as it turns out, the cocktail isn’t that complicated after all. In fact, it’s barely a cocktail.

Long before custom vans and hippies, the old fashioned was little more than whiskey, bitters and sugar. It was a drink to help the bad whiskey go down. Sometime during the space race, though, someone decided to gussy it up with the fake cherries and their chewy stems and an orange (I suppose to fight the great scurvy epidemic that plagued our nation). In some instances, the fruit was even muddled like a bad mojito.

Sadly, the old fashioned was no longer itself. It was a different drink, and a questionable one at that. So upon learning that the old old fashioned was actually a fairly simple cocktail, I was moved to give it a try.

Following a Mr. Boston recipe (the latest Mr. Boston cocktail guide was the nexus of Patterson’s article) that reportedly dates back to 1806, I combined “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” More specifically, I poured three ounces of Wild Turkey rye into an ice-filled high ball, and added three dashes of Angostura bitters and one teaspoon of simple syrup and stirred.

Spectacular. As was the formula’s original purpose, the sugar cut the bite of the whiskey, while the bitters cut the sweet of the sugar. Three ingredients and one solid cocktail.

Then I got to thinking about the addition of the cherry and orange. Clearly someone thought they were a good addition. However, I’ve had enough bad Manhattans to know the fake cherries are deplorable. So I swapped that out with one of Les Parisiennes’ brandy-soaked cherries. For the orange, I substituted Angostura bitters for three dashes of Stirrings’ blood orange bitters. I added the bitters, a teaspoon of simple syrup and three ounces of rye to a shaker with ice (to cut down on the melting in the glass), stirred and strained into an ice-filled high ball. I garnished with the brandied cherry.

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make an old fashioned. Rather than the simple play of sweet and bitter, the whiskey and the orange bitters sing together (as they do in a Manhattan). And the difference between a candy-sweet maraschino cherry and a brandied cherry is the difference between a Red Bull and vodka and, well, an old fashioned. It shows you know better.

The old fashioned was born in the age of Jefferson and lost its way under Ford. As we find our feet in this new century, we do so having rediscovered a fine old cocktail.

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