For a cocktail that has a special glass named after it, the Old Fashioned isn’t as popular as you would think.
Depending on where you are, you have about a 65% chance of the barkeep knowing how to make one. The recipe also seems to change depending on who you talk to.
The basic recipe here is a pretty solid contemporary interpretation: bourbon or rye, bitters, orange peel, simple syrup, ice, and–you guessed it–an old fashioned glass.
Some other recipes include actual muddled fruit like orange or cherries. But the basic formula includes some whiskey, bitters, ice and a little sweetness.
The Old Fashioned has been my drink of choice in the last few years for a couple reasons. The first reason is that even though (or maybe because) the recipe can vary, it’s actually harder to mess up than the its close cousin, the Manhattan.
I used to be a Manhattan guy. In fact, during the brief “Cheers” phase of my life where I could walk into a bar and have the bartender greet me by shouting out my regular drink, it was the Maker’s Manhattan.
When made well, the Manhattan is a glorious drink. Simple and elegant, it embodies the alchemical magic that every cocktail should aspire to: a couple different types of booze coexisting in perfect balance and harmony.
It’s just some bourbon or rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters chilled with ice in a shaker and served up in a stemmed glass.
But so often, the Manhattan is ruined by a bartender who can’t achieve that balance of ingredients. Usually the crime is using too much sweet vermouth. And as many people will attest to, sweet vermouth is the Sonny Bono or Art Garfunkel of booze. In a supporting role, it can help achieve brilliance. But as soon as it takes the lead, the performance can suffer.
Despite its relative obscurity, the Old Fashioned is somehow more forgiving for the everyday bartender. Maybe it’s because the Old Fashioned depends less on a precise balance of ingredients and more on a benevolent co-mingling of good things.
The other reason the Old Fashioned holds a special place in my heart is because of my grandfather. For the last few years of his life, every time I visited he would make a point to teach me how to make an Old Fashioned.
Of course, his recipe was also unique to his own tastes and experience: cover the bottom of a small tumbler with bitters, add a splash of soda and a half teaspoon of grenadine and muddle together, add in exactly 4 ice cubes, then top it off with whiskey. In his case, he used Lord Calvert Canadian Whiskey. I don’t know if it was a taste thing or a budget thing, but it always came out great.
He must have taught me the recipe no less than 20 times. And each time he showed me, he delivered the same lesson with a sense of grave importance, as though mastering this recipe might one day help me save the planet. Even though his recipe was exactly the same each time, it was less about ingredients than the ritual of it.
I think he felt that through this simple lesson he was teaching me about bigger, more important ideas. Like how to be disciplined; how to be present in the moment and care about what you are doing; and how to take raw ingredients and craft them into a thing of beauty.
(Regardless of his ulterior motives, I now realize the brilliance of using alcohol to get my attention).
After he passed away, I have been fortunate enough to share this ritual with the rest of my family. Whenever I visit my grandmother, as soon as the clock hits 4:59PM she waves me over to the liquor cabinet and demands that I make her an Old Fashioned using grandpa’s recipe (she makes her own substitution: Scotch).
I have also passed on the legacy to my younger sister, who is 11 years younger than me. For her first attempt, she chose our mother as her guinea pig. I don’t know how it actually tasted, but the results were satisfactory: my mother, who is not used to drinking hard liquor, took a few sips and immediately got tanked, laughing hysterically at everything we said.
It’s nice to see the Old Fashioned starting to resurface on some higher-end cocktail menus and the various interpretations of the recipe. I actually appreciate the nuances of the different ways bars make it. It’s become sort of a game to order it without knowing what spin they’re going to put on it.
The Old Fashioned will probably always be in the shadow of the Manhattan. But for me that’s just fine. It’s still a damn good drink.