One cold morning many years ago, a grouchy old New Yorker cranked out a letter to the editor of the Times. Happens every day, I know, but listen: This was New Year’s Day in 1936, and this old timer—that’s how he signed the letter, “Old Timer”—unraveled a righteous jeremiad about the improper mixing of drinks. Writing three years after Repeal—and presumably typing through a hangover, with the hammers of an Underwood clacking at his temples—he surveyed the violence Prohibition had done to the martini, the Manhattan, and, foremost, the old-fashioned whiskey cocktail.
Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moistened a lump of sugar with Angostura bitters, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large nor too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink. In most places the price was 15 cents or two for quarter.
Nowadays the modern or ex-speakeasy bartender drops a spoonful of powdered sugar into a glass, adds a squirt of carbonic to aid dissolution, adds to that a dash or two of some kind of alleged bitters and a lump of ice, regardless of size. Then he proceeds to build up a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple and cherry, and himself pours in a carefully measured ounce and a half of bar whisky, usually a blend, and gives one a glass rod to stir it with. Price, 35 to 50 cents. Profanation and extortion.
In his grumping, Old Timer roughly described the two main approaches to this uniquely venerable beverage. The austere former—its liquor merely sweetened and seasoned, not even tarted up with a citrus twist—is hard-core originalist. The fancy latter points to the opposite extreme, where the bartender muddles a whole Carmen Miranda headdress and the squirt of carbonated water becomes a long spritz of Sprite.
The old-fashioned is at once “the manliest cocktail order” and “something your grandmother drank,” and between those poles we discover countless simple delights, evolutionary wonders, and captivating abominations. Because of its core simplicity and its elasticity—because it is primordial booze—ideas about the old-fashioned exist in a realm where gastronomical notions shade into ideological tenets. It is a platform for a bar to make a statement, a surface on which every bartender leaves a thumbprint, and a solution that many a picky drinker dips his litmus paper in. You are a free man. Drink your drink as you please. But know that your interpretation of the recipe says something serious about your philosophy of fun.
I like mine with rye. Matter of fact, I’m liking mine with rye while proofing this sentence. I’m sitting here with a fifth of Rittenhouse 100 and a stack of this fall’s cocktail books. I’ve been using the bottom of an old-fashioned glass as a lens to focus on the soul of each.
The oldest of the new books is Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide: 75th Anniversary Edition, which was edited by Jonathan Pogash with Rick Rodgers and draws on the efforts of many other esteemed barkeeps.1 In the beginning, the Guide existed to shill for Old Mr. Boston, a Massachusetts company that once sold a line of 148 liquors, including the finest mint-flavored gin, butterscotch schnapps, and premixed apricot sours ever distilled in the neighborhood of Roxbury. Now, the liquor brand is a shell of its former self, and the book is the closest thing we have to a standard wet-bar reference. It is, like Hoyle’s Rules of Games, Emily Post’s Etiquette, and Vātsyāyana’s Kama Sutra, a volume without which no home is truly complete.
The old-fashioned whiskey cocktail comes first among the book’s 1,500 recipes. A four-page discussion begins by connecting the old-fashioned with the first recorded definition of the cocktail in general—”a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”—which dates to 1806.2 “As the cocktail evolved, this earliest of cocktails became known simply as the Old-Fashioned,” the text explains. Before old-fashioned became popularly synonymous with a particular drink made with American whiskey, it described a general style. In keeping, the book later presents the rum old-fashioned and the tequila old-fashioned and more. There’s a “Bad-Humored Old-Fashioned” for fans of Dutch gin, a “Oaxaca Old-Fashioned” for mezcal enthusiasts, and a scotch old-fashioned for aficionados of fucking up perfectly good scotch. It only strays from the strictest definition of the term with the coffee old-fashioned, a sort of bourbon-java spritzer served cold. Though the coffee old-fashioned is passable as a hearty after-dinner diversion—and also suitable as an eye-opener for female characters in Bukowski novels—it might work best to fuel late nights of reviewing very dull legal documents. Back up front, handling the basics, Mr. Boston endorses a recipe from 1895 and presents a modern analog that calls for smooth simple syrup rather than grainy sugar.3
Then he anticipates a frequently asked question: “But what about the cherry and the orange?” Though the book, open-minded about the orange, suggests a few techniques of getting at its excellent essence,4 it approves of the cherry only as a garnish: “Muddling them into the drink does little to improve the flavor or the aesthetics.” Depends on your ideas of beauty. At my dive of choice, where they turn out an old-fashioned as a vermilion mess of blasted cherries, the drink is only interesting for its aesthetics. With its evocation of lipstick traces and its garish air of frilly dissipation, the thing is most plausible as an accessory for a young woman cultivating a bad-girl affect.
One of the persons responsible for maintaining Mr. Boston’s relevance in recent years is Jim Meehan, proprietor of the Manhattan bar PDT and now the author of The PDT Cocktail Book, illustrated with brawny suavity by Chris Gall. It is but one indication of Meehan’s stature that he admits the loathed cosmopolitan to these literary premises; many players on the craft-cocktail scene would hesitate to do so for fear of being abandoned by their tribe. The book’s 300-odd formulae include canonized classics and originals from Meehan’s hooch house, which range from models of delicious simplicity to total stunts like the “Cinema Highball,” a Cuba Libre made with buttered-popcorn-infused rum. The PDT Cocktail Book is a terrific resource for anyone running a chic bar, especially if that bar is PDT: Very many cocktail guides offer drawings of Champagne coupes and channel knives in their equipment sections. Meehan goes the further step of showing you his Kold-Draft GB1060 ice machine and diagramming its location in his basement.
There are three old-fashioned recipes here—a minimalist version from 1888, a “Newfangled” that tops its Old Grand-Dad with wheat beer, and the “Benton’s Old-Fashioned,” which relies on bacon fat-infused bourbon and Grade B maple syrup. This is PDT’s most popular drink, its most imitated, and the best exemplar of the house style. This was something I needed to sip, so I called ahead for a table.5 The wife put on her party shoes, and we rendezvoused with a friend at a hot-dog joint on St. Mark’s Place. I went into a phone booth, spun the “1” on the rotary dial, and a hostess opened a hidden door onto a narrow barroom. I placed my order with a pleasant young man wearing a bow tie and clip-on suspenders. Very shortly, the bacon-infused old-fashioned got all up in my face. It came on easy—smoky and rich but delicate. The wife observed that the clarity of the bourbon contrasted wonderfully with the drag of the sweet grease. I quickly decided that I wanted another, but not for years, probably, unless it were served alongside a plate of crispy Eggo Minis. The bacon fat lingered on the palate—loitered, even—on through the cab ride home.
Back on my couch, I dreamily re-read Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, written by Brad Thomas Parsons and enlivened by the appetite-whetting photography of Ed Anderson. Parsons tells you everything you ever wanted to know about his subject and tells it in a manner that may convince you that everything is not enough. “Bitters,” he writes, “are an aromatic flavoring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers, and botanicals in high-proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin).” They give balance, counter sweetness, cut richness … and most of the people who omit them from old-fashioneds are ignoramuses and fools.6 After offering a history of Angostura, a review of bitters’ origins as medicine, an overview of today’s bitters makers, and instructions for making your own, Parsons turns to recipes for 60-odd cocktails. The old-fashioned heads up his “Bitters Hall of Fame.” Characteristically, his tone is companionable, and his advice encourages R&D: “Just mix and match your bourbon or rye with different bitters, and the sugar can take the form of a flavored syrup. … I’m fond of putting an autumnal twist on the old-fashioned by using bourbon, cinnamon syrup, and apple bitters.”
Fab. I recommend Bitters to the Etsy set without reservation. But I also suggest studying it as evidence of certain problematic quirks in cultural consumption among a certain caste.7 On two occasions, Parsons mentions the most precious of all auteurs when introducing a recipe. In one such case, he invokes The Royal Tenenbaums when dedicating a fabulous interpretation of the Pimm’s Cup to two sisters who collect vintage knickknacks in their Williamsburg loft and blog about tweed and that sort of thing. Further, the author features a handful of drinks named with reference to good music, and he has paid special attention to the Matador back catalog. What sort of expression is one supposed to make, in lieu of a straight face, when asking for an “Exile in Ryeville”? It only seems possible to order one if you don’t even know who Liz Phair is. I see where things are going, and the destination makes me uneasy. Nonetheless, I call dibs on the following drink names: Arcade Firewater, the Cape Codder Kwassa Kwassa, and the Lykke Li Lychee Martini.
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