Phew! I'm exhausted from all the amazing and powerful energy generated by the food fascism post! Oy!
Time for a cocktail! (Figuratively—I've got long hours to go before I earn mine.)
Today's Friday cocktail hour is one the oldest and simplest on record. In this era of high-end mixology and complex recipes involving expensive aperitifs and liqueurs, well unless out in the stratosphere at Aviary, I like my cocktails simple. The Old-Fashioned is just that: American whiskey, sugar, bitters, over ice with a twist. All there is to it. With the range of bourbons and bitters now available, the drink itself can vary wildly and well. So even though this is every bit as simple and satisfying as a martini, it's infinitely more complex. A martini is clear and clean, an ice pick. The Old-Fashioned is complex, caramelly, bitter, sweet, citrusy. Because there are only three main ingredients, nuance is everything. Choice of bitters (I prefer citrus), amount of bitters (I like plenty), sugar-bitter ratio (I like it even-steven). Traditionally, this is garnished with a twist, but I like an actual squeeze of lemon. It’s up to you, and the hour you’re having it. Before dinner? Easy on the sugar and bitters; after, the sugar and bitters are desired. Again, simplicity and nuance is what I love.
Brad Parsons, leads off his book Bitters with this very cocktail. He notes that it is predated by the "bittered sling."
“It’s referenced in the classic first printed definition of the word ‘cocktail’ from 1806 in the Hudson Valley newspaper, The Balance and Columbian Repository. … So, from my understanding, the bittered sling pre-dates the cocktail (as a word, and as a drink), but they're essentially the same thing—spirits, sugar, water, bitters."
“Remember, too, that 'cocktail' was just one of many categories and classes for drinks. There were flips, slings, daisies, punches, bucks, etc.”
I asked Paulius Nasvytis, owner of Cleveland's Velvet Tango Room, his preferences, as the Old-Fashioned is his favorite cocktail:
“I prefer a bourbon over rye, but that is entirely subjective," he wrote. "The bourbon (or rye) should be a big and full-flavored one. Maker's Mark is my standard, but Bookers, Blantons, Bakers, all up to you. Maker's has a big flavor with deep caramel and honey notes. Other bourbons, such as Bulleit, are lighter and drier. That one is delicious on its own, but doesn't have enough spine for an Old-Fashioned. I would not recommend using simple syrup when making an Old-Fashioned." [Parsons calls for one in his recipe, fyi—M.R.]
“Bitters are becoming much more diverse. I think it is a matter of preference. Personally, I avoid the fruit flavored types, preferring more classic types. Angostura is fine for a mainstream bitters, but more esoteric ones are available and are fun to experiment with."
"And lastly, if not at the VTR, an 'Executive Old-Fashioned' in Chicago's Coq d'Or in the Drake Hotel is one of my favorite things—atmosphere, solid cocktail, history.”
Thanks, Paulius, that's what it's all about. And thanks, Brad.
Additional reading on the Old-Fashioned from Slate.
Herewith, one of the simplest, oldest, and most satisfying cocktails on record.
- 4 to 6 grams sugar (about a teaspoon)
- 4 to 6 grams bitters (about a teaspoon)
- 60 grams bourbon or rye (2 ounces)
- Place the sugar and bitters in a rocks glass and muddle and stir to get the sugar disolving.
- Add the bourbon or rye and stir.
- Add ice and a squeeze of lemon (or a twist or orange zest).
If you liked this post on the Old-Fashioned, check out these other links:
- My post on Chicago, Xoco and chocolate.
- Mike Ryan and Jacques Bezuidenhout make the Sable's bar in Chicago amazing.
- Imbibe magazine covers all aspects of beverages.
© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner-Ruhlman. All rights reserved