Fitz seems like he knows his way around an Old Fashioned. He should. He’s been a daytime fixture behind the long piece of mahogany at Manhattan’s Old Town Bar on 18th Street for years. I am a little apprehensive mind you; this is hardly a temple to mixology and there are certainly several ways to screw up what is essentially a fairly simple and democratic libation.
This working man’s tap room doesn’t pretend to have any such lofty aspirations to be a "craft cocktail bar" and I really couldn’t care. Its selection of American whiskies is meager at best and includes stalwarts like Jim Beam and Canadian Club. I typically exclusively drink Guinness at this venerable saloon — my go-to day drinking spot in the city — but today, I get ambitious and test their wares.
From a rickety bar stool I watch as Fitz muddles three of those abominable red orbs posing as cherries with some sugar and a good eight dashes of Angostura bitters. A healthy slug of something unfamiliar called R.J. Hodges goes in, filled almost to overflowing. It’s a stiff drink that the weathered chaps who frequent this joint probably expect. Is this how I would make an Old Fashioned? No. Would I order another one? Probably not. But do I enjoy it? Strangely, yes. I pay the paltry $8 asking price and we exchange parting pleasantries.
I started making rather terrible versions of what I thought was an old fashioned straight out of high school, more than two decades ago. I acquired these early recipes from various mediocre cocktail books that my mother had procured at my behest. This was the old fashioned as I knew it and even today, sadly, so does most of America. But first, a story...
There was once a drink called a “cocktail.” So simple was it that back in 1806 it was defined as a mix of “spirits, sugar, water, and bitters.” By today’s rather ambiguous interpretation of the term — which could include anything from a Vieux Carré to a Chocolate-Marshmallow-Cronut-Tini — that’s a pretty rudimentary sounding concoction. Everyone seemed okay with that.
At the time, around the mid 1800s, there was a “Whiskey Cocktail,” a “Gin Cocktail,” a “Brandy Cocktail” and so on. If you wanted it “fancy,” the bewhiskered barkeep would have broken a lemon twist over the top. Fancy, indeed. The sweetener would have been rasped off a large block of what was known as “loaf” sugar and the ice would have been chiseled from a large block, like is de rigueur today.
Somewhere along the way, however, the Whiskey Cocktail went from being a mixed drink of the highest order to a laughing stock amongst its antiquated brethren. Neon red cherries doused 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 charged with Sprite if you live in Wisconsin. Yes, you read that correctly.
As Robert Simonson, drinks writer for The New York Times, points out in his new book, The Old Fashioned, solely dedicated to this august libation, “Once an austere, perfectly balanced assemblage of whiskey, bitters, sugar and water — a cocktail in its most elemental — it had taken on several decades worth of baggage. Citizens who came of drinking age around the turn of the new millennium would have been hard pressed to understand why intellectual leaders of the last century had taken time out of their day to signal praise for what seemed an exceedingly silly, unsophisticated drink.”
In time, the cocktail cognoscenti, longing for a Whiskey Cocktail as it was intended, began to ask for that drink, but made the “old-fashioned way.” I, too, was once guilty of committing crimes against the Old Fashioned, like those mentioned above. When I plied my trade in London about a decade ago, the process of making an Old Fashioned was a fastidious event that we were taught should take about six to seven minutes. Now, if you think that sounds like a preposterous amount of time to prepare a cocktail, then you would be correct. I never could comprehend that 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 good gateway cocktail when guests may not be familiar with other classics or hesitant to try our signature drinks. It's the premise of what began the cocktail revival and the one drink that everyone was serving before we started to create our own.”
Back at Old Town, Fitz’s Old Fashioned quickly melts into oblivion, the muddled cherries now a quagmire at the bottom of the glass. I gather my belongings and head over to a place nearby that couldn’t be more different than the Old Town. Dear Irving is a hip new cocktail joint on Irving Place, an ostentatious and opulent cocoon of hanging chandeliers, crystal glassware and $15 Old Fashioneds.
Under the watchful eye of cocktail maven Meaghan Dorman, veteran bartender Tom Richter makes me a stellar version that would befit such a price tag. A small sugar cube doused in Angostura bitters is muddled with a splash of soda. He does ask for my preference in whiskey — a nice touch — and pours in over proof Rittenhouse rye once I tell him I don’t really care. He knows what he’s doing.
A hand carved chunk of brilliant, clear ice is carefully lowered in and stirred briefly. This expeditious technique produces an Old Fashioned that is rather alcoholic during the first few sips and is consequently a little unbalanced. The Old Fashioned, which is essentially a drink of pure alcohol, needs a little dilution to achieve that silky, viscous texture that made us fall in love with this drink in the first place.
Not so, says Erik Adkins, the man to trust at Hard Water in San Francisco, a bar that stocks a dizzying array of American whiskies.
“We make a lot of Old Fashioneds, but we go with the original name, ‘whiskey cocktail,’ which confuses some people, but we like it. I know that lemon peel is traditional but I have always liked it better with orange peel. I also know that some esteemed bartenders prefer theirs stirred to dilution and then served on hand cut ice but I am not convinced. I like mine a little boozier. I think that it’s fitting that a whiskey bar makes an Old Fashioned on the stronger side as it’s a drink to linger over and enjoy as it evolves from strong to weak.”
Back in New York, at Dorman’s other bar, the Raines Law Room, she pays particular respect to the Old Fashioned by including a section where guests can choose their own spirit, bitters and sweetener. And it’s not exclusive to whiskey. A mezcal version with Del Maguey’s prized Chichicapa? Sure, why not? Or maybe the divine Siete Leguas reposado tequila with agave nectar 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, makes plenty of Old Fashioneds at Southern Efficiency, a place dedicated to the food and drink of the South (especially whiskey). “Personally, I love a rich Old Fashioned that keeps the sweetness in check, when it lands on your tongue with the weight of sweet cream but ends with a kick. I also love mixing various Old Fashioned-style drinks and, especially, substituting the sweetener: honey, chai maple syrup, PX sherry. They’re all fun to play with. Throw in some different bitters too and you can make about 100 variations in an afternoon.”
My own Old Fashioned epiphany came when I stood behind the stick at New York’s famed Pegu Club. Owner Audrey Saunders taught me that the only non-negotiable with the drink is to choose a good, high proof whiskey, while the skill in making a great one comes from achieving the perfect level of dilution. She showed me that the Old Fashioned is a simple drink that can and should be made in less than a minute.