Sugar, Water, Spirit, Bitters
That’s the formula for what many people consider the original cocktail – The Old Fashioned. That’s what we’re taking a look at to celebrate World Old Fashioned Week.
Before the mid-1800’s, alcohol consumption was mostly split into two categories – locally made alcohol, from the local tavern or from one’s own home, enjoyed with little more than water & maybe fruit added. Then there was punch – citrus, tea, water, wine, & spirits – all flowing from the communal bowl. The idea of a serves-one cocktail was a new invention of bartenders & patrons in America – a measure of spirit that was probably rough & not amazingly made, with spicy bitters & sugar to rough out the edges & some water to take the ethanol edge off. That wasn’t an old idea however, that was just ‘a cocktail’.
Moving into the 1870’s & 80’s, the ‘improved whiskey cocktail’ came about – now with ice, which was more affordable, as well as syrups & liqueurs from Europe to offer depth & more flavor. Some people’s response to this phenomenon was reactionary – they wanted a cocktail ‘in the old fashioned way’. No chichi liqueurs, no fancy syrups, (people still swear by a sugar cube, but everyone agrees to keep the ice). Thus, The Old Fashioned was born.
It remained the same until the mid-20th century, where palates shifted toward the sweet & unchallenging; crushed ice & muddled cherries & orange wedges accompanied bourbon, which is sweeter than the traditional Rye whiskey. Not a bad drink in itself & even a tradition to this day made with Brandy in Wisconsin, this drink is far sweeter & fruitier, a far cry from the traditional recipe. That traditional recipe has been reclaimed in the 21st century cocktail renaissance, where quality spirits are cleverly accented with complimenting flavors & deft balance.
Everyone’s old fashioned will be different; every bar has their house version, every bartender has their own spin – different ratios, different bitters, or different spirits. With such a simple template, small variations stand out. Let’s go over my prefered old fashioned…
Rye Whiskey is the basis of our drink – For a whiskey old fashioned, Rye is the traditional choice; it has a natural herbal spiciness that separates it from Bourbon, which is based mostly on corn & much sweeter. Both have a relatively intense bittersweet character from the unused oak barrels that they legally must be rested in – wood sugars & wood tannins both enter the spirit rapidly. Sazerac Rye from the Buffalo Trace distillery offers a good balance of Rye & Corn in the mashbill (proportion of ingredients), giving a good balance of spicy & sweet for not a lot of money.
That’s perfect since the other parts of an old fashioned are designed to accentuate & widen the spectrum of those flavors – spicy bitters & sugar, either in cube form, giving a grainy texture & pop of sugar in the last sip that some find desirable, or in a syrup, which I prefer, as it incorporates the sugar completely & creates a more consistent sip, while the Luxardo cherry I add gives us some syrup to offer that fun last explosion of sweetness.
Spirit Forward House Old Fashioned:
6 Dashes -Angostura Bitters
3 Dashes – Orange Bitters
¼ oz – 2:1 Demerara Sugar Syrup
2 oz – Rye Whiskey
Place all ingredients in your glass, add your ice (preferable a big rock, for the sake of less dilution & presentation, made by molds or hacking at a frozen Tupperware’s worth of water), & stir until it’s chilled down.
Be sure to express some Citrus oils, & a cherry makes a great garnish.
This recipe is spicy & sweet – taking the original spectrum of flavor profiles of the whsikey & extending them. It’s hot & cold, sweet & spicy, rich & fragrant. One of the many perfect Old Fashioneds… Because the Old Fashioned is not a recipe – it’s a template. Amazing Old Fashioneds can be made with Rum, Brandy, or any number of spirits. The “bitters” modifier can be anything – Mint, Sugar, Bourbon, & Ice makes a Mint Julep – that’s basically an Old Fashioned as well.
Old Fashioned week was created to celebrate the creativity & character expressed in such a simple drink, & I’m glad to be a small part of that.