OLD-FASHIONED

Most certainly a Bourbonatic favorite, I was drinking old-fashioned's long before I ever started sipping whiskey. In all honesty, I never really was much for whiskey in my early years. During college, I'd sometimes get something cheap. Jim Beam or Jack Daniels, if I could spare it. However, beer was the choice in those days. Cheap whiskies never settled with me. Shots of rail whiskey did even worse. It's safe to say I got off to a fairly poor start on my quest for (bourbon) whiskey nirvana. After realizing there was world of libations outside of cheap booze, I started experimenting with different cocktails and landed on the old-fashioned after experiencing a few good makes. The old-fashioned is a classic, after all. And classics never go out of style. I think it was also a cultural swing, for me at least, seeing refined gentleman of the silver screen, clad in custom cut suits, slicked back hair and their suave demeanor. I always thought, "if James Bond were American, he'd most certainly drink an old-fashioned!" As art imitates life, well, I'm keen to imitate art.

It wasn't until about two years ago when I started experimenting with my own old-fashioned recipes. Having ordered so many over the years, I've come to find what I like and dislike in the classic cocktail. I've also sourced ideas from various bartenders, watching closely as they craft my swill, and taking notes when I can. There's some good recipes floating around the Internet as well. However, it wasn't until I stumbled upon a Season 1 episode of "Mind of a Chef" on Netflix one fateful evening and discovered chef David Chang hanging out with the Michael Corleone of bourbon himself, Julian Van Winkle. (I would've called him the Godfather, but I'd say the proper distinction for that moniker would probably go to Jimmy Russell, but what do I know?) In any case, halfway through this episode, what do I find? Julian Van Winkle making an old-fashioned, of course!

This [old-fashioned] is the only drink I know how to make besides bourbon on the rocks.
— Julian Van Winkle

Cocktails are, in in some ways, an art form. And the old-fashioned is no exception. As with any good art, it takes time and effort!  As Julian puts it, an old-fashioned is "a five to eight minute cocktail." You also have to use good bourbon! "The better the bourbon, the better the cocktail," he exclaims as he mixed his 15-year Pappy Van Winkle into a glass. You can find the full recipe here: http://www.pbs.org/food/recipes/julian-van-winkles-old-fashioned-cocktail/

As a side: I'm not completely convinced tainting PVW 15 with anything other than air is warranted, especially these days since anything with "pappy" in the name has become so elusive, you might have a better chance winning the lottery than actually procuring your own bottle. But, I suppose, if you're the master distiller of one of the finest bourbon makers in the world, you can do whatever the hell you want!? Amiright?

So, I took some notes. I like Julian's methodical approach, but I needed to add my own spin. See my recipe below.

THe History

There's a lot of different theories out there about the history of old-fashioned and where it originates. You can find mentions of the old-fashioned being introduced in the 18th century, and hitting its stride in the 1800s and early 1900s. There's also a debate about adding and/or muddling fruit as a flavoring. I'm on the fence, but since my recipe calls for fruit to be muddled - and garnished with orange peel - I guess I'm on the side of the "fruiters." Old-fashioned purists will likely tell you to go to hell for putting fruit in this classic, and are certain that no "true" recipe calls for fruit to be added to the cocktail. If it's all the same, I'm a firm believer you should keep an open mind, for certainty is the absence of free thought. I've had very good (and very bad) variations of an old-fashioned prepared with and without fruit. However, I think freelance booze evangelist, Martin Doudoroff, does a great job summarizing the classic american cocktail on his website Old Fashioned 101:

"Circa 1800, the Cocktail was a “hair of the dog” morning drink that tamed spirits with water, sugar and bitters (patent medicine). The late 19th Century expanded the use of the word “cocktail” to encompass just about any mixed drink. Since then, the Old Fashioned—literally, the old-fashioned way of making a cocktail—has been our contemporary expression of the original drink."

Courtesy of Martin Doudoroff, Oldfashioned101.com

The Recipe

I'm an extremely particular person. Details are my thing. The bespoke aura and noir feel of the old-fashioned are well suited for my personality. I also embrace the subtleties of the cocktail and I am constantly tweaking, refining, and striving to perfect my own old-fashioneds. But no matter where you go, an old-fashioned consists of four things:

  1. Whiskey (mostly bourbon, sometimes rye)
  2. Bitters
  3. Sugar (or simple syrup)
  4. Ice

Bourbonatic's recipe includes a few more ingredients, as follows:

Old-Fashioned or "rocks" glass. Swizzle stick (for stirring). Muddler. Napkin / paper towel. Matches (wooden; optional). Ice (2-inch cube; solid). 

Note: I'm a Willett sheep. As such, I've found the Willett 2YO rye an outstanding whiskey foundation for my old-fashioneds. In general, I really enjoy rye over bourbon for an old-fashioned, as it is a sweetened cocktail, and to better balance that sweetness, a rye achieves this better than bourbon!

  • 2 oz Willett 2-year Small Batch Rye*
  • Demerara Sugar Cube
  • Dash Aromatic Bitters (Angostura)
  • Dash Orange Bitters (Angostura)
  • Maraschino Cherry
  • 2 splashes club soda (Canada Dry)
  • Orange (peel; for garnish)

*=Update: The 2-year Willett rye has been superseded by its older variations (now with the 3-year), which still makes the best rye old-fashioned!

Take the napkin / paper towel and lay across the top of the glass. Place the sugar cube on the napkin. Dash the cube with both the aromatic and orange bitters until the cube is soaked through, usually about 3-4 dashes each.

Note: This is a trick I saw Julian Van Winkle do on the aforementioned program. The napkin will prevent excess bitters from entering the glass, and allows the bitters to completely soak into the sugar, balancing the flavors nicely.

Pull off the napkin and drop the cube into the glass. Drop in cherry. Splash with club soda (it will react with the sugar). Muddle ingredients until combined and dissolved. Place ice cube in glass. Pour whiskey over cube and stir vigorously, about 20 stirs. Splash with club soda. Twist the orange peel, rub the rim of the glass with the outer peel, place in glass to garnish.

The EXECUTION

There's so many variances of this cocktail, but I do enjoy the cherry flavor mixed with the subtle orange. It especially compliments the flavors in the spicy rye. Also, some won't have access to the larger cocktail cubes, so regular ice is okay. However, I'd warn against using ice from you home's freezer ice maker. In my experience, the most important ingredient for the old-fashioned is the actual ice itself. Since the ice continues to melt throughout the lifespan of the drink, it's constantly changing the flavor. I've found that distilled water ice cubes are best, since any other minerals and contaminants in tap water can alter the flavor of your old-fashioned (not in a good way). If that's not available, bagged ice is good alternative.

For extra flair points: Before placing the orange peel in for garnish, grab a (wooden) match. Take the orange peel in between your thumb and index finger, with the outer peel facing outward. Strike the match. Over the glass, wave the match back and forth across the outer part of the peel to warm the natural oils in the skin of the peel. After about 6-7 waves, quickly pinch the orange peel over the lit match and watch the oils ignite and flash. Twist the orange peel, rub the rim of the glass with the outer peel, place in glass to garnish. 

I don't do this every time, but I've done it on occasions when making old-fashioneds for a host of people. It is a neat party trick and most people enjoy it. Aside from the aesthetic appeal, I've heard that doing this also adds a "smoky" flavor, which I tend to agree with. It is subtle, but compliments the rest of the flavors well. Cheers!