Fitz seems to know his way around an Old Fashioned. He should. For years, he’s been a daytime staple behind the long piece of mahogany at Manhattan’s Old Town Bar on 18th Street. I have a little apprehension, you see; it’s hardly a temple of mixology and there are certainly a few ways to screw up what is essentially a pretty straightforward and democratic libation.
This working man’s tap room doesn’t claim to have such high aspirations to be a “craft cocktail bar” and I really don’t care. Its selection of American whiskeys is meager at best and includes stalwarts like Jim Beam and Canadian Club. Usually I drink Guinness exclusively in this venerable saloon – my daily drinking spot in town – but today I’m getting ambitious and testing their products.
From a rickety bar stool, I watch Fitz muddle three of those abominable red orbs masquerading as cherries with sugar and eight good dashes of Angostura bitters. A healthy slug from something unknown called RJ Hodges walks in, almost packed. It’s a strong drink that older guys who frequent this joint are probably expecting. Is this how I would do an Old Fashioned? No. Can I order another one? Probably not. But do I appreciate it? Strangely, yes. I pay the ridiculous asking price of $ 8 and we exchange good-bye jokes.
I started making pretty terrible versions of what I thought was old school straight out of high school over two decades ago. I acquired these early recipes from various mediocre cocktail books that my mother had obtained at my request. It was the old fashion as I knew it and even today, unfortunately, it is in most of the United States as well. But first, a story …
Once upon a time there was a drink called a “cocktail”. It was so simple that in 1806 it was defined as a mixture of “spirits, sugar, water and bitters”. By today’s rather ambiguous interpretation of the term – which could include anything from an Vieux Carré to a Chocolate-Marshmallow-Cronut-Tini – it’s a pretty rudimentary concoction. Everyone seemed to agree with that.
Back then, around the mid-1800s, there was a “Whiskey Cocktail”, a “Gin Cocktail”, a “Brandy Cocktail” and so on. If you wanted it “chic”, the mustache bartender would have smashed a lemon zest on top. Fantasy, indeed. The sweetener would have been grated from a large block of what was called “loaf” sugar and the ice would have been chiseled into a large block, as is the case. de rigueur today.
Somewhere along the way, however, the Whiskey Cocktail went from a top-notch mixed drink to a laughing stock among its archaic brethren. Neon red cherries soaked in formaldehyde and who knows what else found their way into the drink’s eponymous receptacle, along with a superfluous piece of orange, then perhaps blasphemously loaded with Sprite if you live in Wisconsin. . Yes, you read that right.
Like Robert Simonson, drink writer for The New York Times, emphasizes in his new book, The old one, dedicated solely to this august libation, “Once an austere and perfectly balanced blend of whiskey, bitters, sugar and water – a cocktail in its most basic form – it had taken decades of baggage. Citizens who reached the drinking age at the turn of the new millennium would have found it difficult to understand why the intellectual leaders of the last century took the time to praise what appeared to be an extremely stupid and unsophisticated drink.
Over time, cocktail connoisseurs, hungry for a whiskey cocktail as expected, began to ask for this drink, but went “the old fashioned way”. I, too, was once guilty of committing crimes against the Old Fashioned, like those mentioned above. When I was plying my trade in London a decade ago, the process of making an Old Fashioned was a tedious event that we thought would take around six to seven minutes. Now if you think that sounds like an absurd amount of time to make a cocktail then you would be right. I have never been able to understand this reasoning.
At Julep in Houston, owner Alba Huerta has a particular fondness for whiskey cocktails, and her Old Fashioned is a crowd favorite that doesn’t take seven minutes. Huerta explains, “This is a great appetizer cocktail when customers may not be familiar with other classics or be reluctant to try our signature drinks. This is the premise of what started the cocktail revival and the one drink everyone was serving before they started creating our own.
Back in Old Town, Fitz’s Old Fashioned quickly melts into oblivion, with the Scrambled Cherries now a quagmire at the bottom of the glass. I gather my things and make my way to a nearby location that couldn’t be more different from the Old Town. Dear Irving is a hip new cocktail bar on Irving Place, an ostentatious and opulent cocoon of hanging chandeliers, crystal glassware, and $ 15 Old Fashioneds.
Under the watchful eye of cocktail expert Meaghan Dorman, veteran bartender Tom Richter makes me a stellar version that would suit such a price. A small piece of sugar dipped in Angostura bitters is mixed with a little soda. He asks me my whiskey preference – a nice touch – and pours Rittenhouse-proof rye once I tell him I don’t care. He knows what he’s doing.
A hand-carved shiny and clear piece of ice is carefully lowered and shaken briefly. This speedy technique produces a rather alcoholic Old Fashioned from the first sips and therefore a little unbalanced. Old Fashioned, which is basically a pure alcohol drink, needs a bit of dilution to get that silky, gooey texture that made us fall in love with this drink in the first place.
It’s not, says Erik Adkins, the man of trust at Hard Water in San Francisco, a bar that offers a dizzying array of American whiskeys.
“We make a lot of Old Fashioneds, but we use the original name, ‘whiskey cocktail,’ which confuses some people, but we love it. I know lemon zest is traditional but I have always preferred it with orange zest. I also know that some esteemed bartenders prefer theirs brewed diluted and then served over hand-cut ice, but I’m not convinced. I like mine a little more watered. I think it’s normal for a whiskey bar to make a stronger Old Fashioned, as it’s a drink to be savored and savored as it evolves from strong to weak.
Back in New York, in Dorman’s other bar, the Raines Law Room, she particularly respects the Old Fashioned by including a section where patrons can choose their own spirits, bitters, and sweeteners. And it’s not exclusive to whiskey. A mezcal version with the highly prized Chichicapa by Del Maguey? Sure why not? Or maybe the divine Siete Leguas reposado agave nectar tequila is more your speed. “Choose your own adventure,” the menu encourages. It’s a fun ride and worth a visit.
Derek Brown, the charismatic owner of several bars in the capital, stocked up on Old Fashioneds at Southern Efficiency, a place dedicated to southern food and drink (especially whiskey). “Personally, I like a rich Old Fashioned that keeps the sweetness in check, when it lands on your tongue with the weight of the sweet cream but ends in a kick. I also like to mix various drinks the old fashioned way. and most importantly substitute the sweetener: honey, chai maple syrup, PX sherry. They are all fun to play. Also add different bitters and you can do about 100 variations in an afternoon.
My own Old Fashioned epiphany came when I stood behind the stick at the famous Pegu Club in New York City. Owner, Audrey Saunders, taught me that the only thing non-negotiable with the drink is choosing a good, tough whiskey, while the skill to make a great one comes from getting the perfect level of dilution. She showed me that Old Fashioned is a simple drink that can and should be brewed in less than a minute.