The Old Fashioned

This is my longtime favorite cocktail, and my dad’s favorite too — it’s the one he first taught me to make. When I was a kid, if I was lucky and if he was in a generous mood, I’d get to make this for him when he got home from work. Ah, a quality New Orleans upbringing — you teach the kids the important stuff early.

The popular myth in New Orleans is that the Sazerac was the first cocktail, but if any case or argument can be made for anything being “the first cocktail,” it’s the Old Fashioned.

As you may be aware, the first published definition of what a cocktail (“cock-tail” or “cock tail”) was appeared in a Hudson, New York newspaper called The Balance and Columbian Repository, in a reply to a letter to the editor on May 13, 1806. After a local Democratic candidate lost his bid for office, the paper published a humorous account of his Loss and Gain; in the gains column was “NOTHING,” and in the losses column there were “720 rum-grogs, 17 brandy do., 32 gin slings, 411 glasses of bitters, 25 do. cock-tail and My Election.” A reader wrote in to inquire as to what this “cock-tail” actually was, as he’d never heard of it. The editor replied,

As I make it a point, never to publish anything (under my editorial head) but which I can explain, I shall not hesitate to gratify the curiosity of my inquisitive correspondent: Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters; it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else. — Edit. Bal.

See, political snarkiness in the press is far from a modern phenomenon. But there it was.

Spirits, water, sugar and bitters. If you combine the sugar and water into simple syrup, for convenience and to keep any sugar grit out of your drink (because who wants that?), then you’re down to spirit, simple syrup and bitters.

If your spirit is whiskey, then this drink was called a Whiskey Cocktail.

There are origin stories of the Old Fashioned that claim it was invented at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880s. This is highly doubtful, given that the drink with the exact same ingredients had been swilled for at least 74 years before that, and probably a lot longer. A more believable origin story is that when bartenders like Professor Jerry Thomas started introducing far more cocktails and mixed drinks of all kinds into the American drinking repertoire, especially those involving exotic-at-the-time ingredients like vermouth, those who wanted a good ol’ whiskey cocktail took to asking for it old-fashioned style, an Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.

It was around 1936, if I recall correctly, that the Old Fashioned began its downfall — not because it was a bad drink, but because it started to be made in variations that I just consider to be unworthy.

If you have some time, read Robert Hess’ marvelous article tracing the development of the Old Fashioned, “Renewing an Old Fashion.” For years Robert had the same problem I did — he had a very hard time ordering a decent Old Fashioned at a bar.

They kill it with soda, they leave out the bitters, the grind an orange slice into a disgusting paste, they muddle the fake cherry, for God’s sake. Robert’s essay traces the drink’s history and development, and the proper way to make it (as well as how not to), including recipes from over two dozen sources, some going back over a century.

I’m going to print a few of these out and stick them in the trunk of my car. Next time some bartender tries to insist that the crappy watered-down Bourbon spritzer with a shredded cherry and a mess of finely ground fruit paste he’s just served me is a “traditional Old Fashioned”, I’m going to politely excuse myself, go to my car, fetch the papers, go back to the bar and present them to the bartender with my compliments.

It’s fascinating reading, but if you don’t have the time to go through the whole 36 printed pages’ worth, learn from this:

For myself, the key concepts I think are important to the Old Fashioned are as follows:

Water is only intended to aid in the dissolving of the sugar, and should be kept to a bare minimum. In fact, it can be omitted entirely if you use simple syrup.

A fresh slice of orange, when muddled in the drink at the beginning, adds some interesting and useful flavor notes that play nicely against the bourbon or rye.

A cherry adds a nice visual touch when used as a garnish at the very end, but is nothing but an ugly mess when its crushed carcass lies at the bottom of your glass.

Soda water has no place in this drink. Ever.

Yeah you rite. However, I have to say that I am a purist and I do not care for the muddled orange slice. Yes, I know this puts me at odds with Gaz Regan and Dale DeGroff, but that’s the way my dad taught me to make it, as a true old-fashioned whiskey cocktail: whiskey, sugar, water, bitters. I do like a large swath of orange peel in it, though, either gently muddled or (preferably) with the oil expressed over the top.

I will drink an Old Fashioned in which an orange slice has been GENTLY muddled, removed and replaced with a fresh slice for garnish, but I have never actually seen anyone do this outside of a top professional like Dale or Gaz doing it at a demonstration. 999 times out of 1000 the orange slice is ground into a purée, and gives the drink, for me, a disgusting consistency.

I make Old Fashioneds in myriad ways — different combinations of bitters, different whiskies, different spirits even (I adore Rum Old Fashioneds, Añejo Tequila Old Fashioneds and Mezcal Old Fashioneds). Here’s my “standard,” though, which is a winner.

The Old Fashioned Cocktail
(Chuck’s standard version)

2-1/2 ounces rye or Bourbon whiskey.
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup.
2 dashes Angostura bitters.
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters.

Build in and Old Fashioned glass, add ice to fill and stir for 20 seconds. Garnish with a Bourbon-soaked or brandied cherry, and/or a piece of orange or lemon peel.

Let’s watch master New Orleans bartender Chris McMillian make one.

Chris is The Man here … no club soda (the ruination of any Old Fashioned) and no muddled fruit (I want a strong whiskey cocktail, not a puréed fruit salad). I do like the orange peel in it, though, and I often like Peychaud’s bitters in addition to or instead of the Angostura (I got that from my dad; Peychaud’s was always his favorite).

Most if not all whiskey-based Old Fashioneds you order now (if you can even order one and get it made properly) are going to be made with Bourbon, but if you really want to make this drink great make it with rye.

I occasionally like to make what I call a “Houlihan Old Fashioned” or a “Hot Lips Old Fashioned.” I was watching an episode of “M*A*S*H” once, one of the episodes later in the series when Margaret Houlihan stopped being a one-dimensional ninny and foil to Frank Burns, and started to be developed into a more complex and human character (whom I liked very much). She was in the officers’ club, went up to the bar, and ordered her favorite drink — firmly but politely, and with a tiny grin and a twinkle in her eye…

“Old Fashioned. Straight up. No fruit.”

Margaret was awesome.

[The first version of this article was published on September 8, 2000 and was revised on April 13, 2002; August 24, 2007; and February 4, 2010.]

The Vesper

Um … y’know, my mixological experimentation and voyage of further discovery through the world of cocktails and spirits will only go so far, and will never include The Pork Martini.

However, it most certainly will include a glass of Lillet Blanc over ice, with a slice of orange. Lillet is a marvelous French aperitif wine, fortified with brandy and flavored with fruits and herbs. The bouquet and flavor are redolent of oranges, honey, a hint of lime and even a tiny wisp of mint, and the flavor is wonderfully bright. It also has the dubious distinction of being the preferred aperitif of Dr. Hannibal Lecter; he may have been a monster, a psychopath and a completely remorseless and cunning murderer, but did have exquisite taste … ya gotta give him that. There’s also a Lillet Rouge which I haven’t tried yet, but at about $12 a bottle, it’s not too big a bite out of the wallet to give it a try.

Lillet Blanc is not nearly as herbal-tasting as vermouth — in fact, I really don’t care for vermouth at all — and I find it far more agreeable both as an aperitif and even as the flavoring in a Martini.

In fact, the Vesper — the infamous, so-called “James Bond Martini” as described in Casino Royale — uses Lillet as part of its flavor base. [Although I did at the time of this writing like to shake my Martinis to get them a bit colder (before I learned of the joys of the silky texture of a stirred Martini), Bond and everyone else is full of hooey about that “stirring bruises the gin” crap. You can’t bruise gin.]

[UPDATE: March 20, 2007] Sunday night Wes and I watched the new “Casino Royale,” which for my money may well be the best James Bond movie ever, or at least since Connery. Nothing less than a rebooting of the franchise, it was also exciting and grim and brilliantly acted by Daniel Craig. One thing the filmmakers went out of their way to include from the original novel was the so-called “James Bond Martini,”, a.k.a. The Vesper (named after the lead female character and Bond’s love interest). Here’s how it went in the novel (and the film as well):

“A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

Thing is … though the franchise has been rebooted such that James Bond is newly promoted to Double-O status (i.e., a license to kill), the film is not a period piece; it’s set in modern times. As David Wondrich points out, things have changed in 54 years. Gordon’s gin was 94 proof in the 1950s; it has subsequently been reduced in proof to 80. (This is a trend among distillers that I despise, as it doesn’t just lower the alcohol content, it changes the flavor profile and the balance as well).

Bond, when he drank vodka, drank Stolichnaya, which was 100 proof back then. And for perhaps the most important touch, “Kina Lillet” doesn’t exist anymore, not as it did in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel. The Lillet of that era had more of a bitter tang to it with the presence of a small amount of quinine, which was removed in 1985; the aperitif wine was recast as “Lillet blanc,” which is what we have now.

Wondrich suggests using Tanqueray (still a glorious 94 proof), and digging a bit to find 100 proof Stoli (which is still available). His final touch, which I love, is to add a pinch of quinine powder, available from Tenzing Momo, who sell it in convenient one-ounce quantities.

Here’s how you now make a proper Vesper.

The Vesper Cocktail

3 ounces Tanqueray gin.
1 ounce 100 proof Stolichnaya vodka.
1/2 ounce Lillet blanc.
1 pinch quinine powder, about 1/16th teaspoon.

Combine with ice in a cocktail shaker; shake for 12-15 seconds until the drink is Arctic cold, the shaker is frosted and your hands hurt. Double-strain into a deep champagne goblet, large cocktail glass or 2 smaller cocktail glasses (as it’s big enough to split). Garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel.

One tidbit from the movie that apparently differs from the novel:

Bartender: “Shaken or stirred, monsieur?”

Bond: “Do I look like I give a damn?”

Heh, nice touch.

Delicious frou-frou cocktail recipe of the day

I’ve been digging through the fairly comprehensive Ultimate A-to-Z Bar Guide by Herbst and Herbst, looking for interesting cocktail recipes in addition to my own off-the-cuff mixological experimentation. Last night I found a terrific one. It’s a little foofy, but definitely delicious; it has more of a kick than you might think but not as much as you’d guess from its name. It’s called a Velvet Hammer, kin to the Alexander, and of course I tweaked the recipe (as is my usual wont) by changing the white crème de cacao to the ever-fabulous Godiva chocolate liqueur. This gives it a little color as well as sublime flavor.

The Velvet Hammer

1 ounce Cointreau (do not use triple sec; use the good stuff)
1 ounce Godiva liqueur
1 ounce cream or half-and-half
1/2 ounce brandy

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. You may optionally dust the surface of the drink with a small amount of cocoa.

If you love the flavor of orange and chocolate together (and I do), then this is the drink for you. Use milk if you’re counting calories (but then again, who’s counting calories when they’re ordering cocktails?).