Wednesday, October 5, 2011

20 Quintessential Cocktails (XXQC) - The Old Fashioned

While researching and reading about the plethora of cocktails that have been devised over the last 200+ years, I came to appreciate the enormous diversity within the realm of mixology.  Yet at the same time, I also began to realize that the lineages of a number of them could often be traced back to classics, or corresponding variations on a respective theme.  Clearly there are many drinks in existence today which are novel creations, often times a bit more complex than earlier-dated cocktails which might display subtle hints of their origin.  The vast array of commercially available spirits, liqueurs, and bitters, combined with the unknown number of craft and housemade infused spirits, syrups, and sweeteners are seemingly limited only by the imagination.  In my recent inaugural efforts to create original cocktails, I started with ingredients and ratios with which I had the most experience, and began my venture from there.  Although the resulting concoctions were not offensive to myself or the immediately available guinea pigs at my disposal, the world of mixology can be a rather personal one...with slightly altered proportions, different classes of spirits, or distinct ingredients altogether resulting in the thumbs up or down from fellow imbibers.  That being said, in a humble effort to sift through and simplify what is an incredibly profound universe of cocktail recipes, I have decided to take a look at how some of the most common and well-known were originated, evolved, and/or remained the same over time.  Lacking a more innovative approach myself, I decided to model this project on reference material ('The Classic 25 Drinks Every Bartender Should Know') used during my BarSmarts certification.  With the minds of Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Steve Olson, F. Paul Pacult, Andy Seymour and David Wondrich at the helm of such an educational effort, I figured I certainly couldn't go wrong, let alone come up with a better approach.  So with that, I'll take a look at the first of my 20 quintessential cocktails (XXQC)...the Old Fashioned.

Although I certainly acknowledge that there far more knowledgeable and experienced mixologists and enthusiasts who have provided incredibly insightful thoughts on the origination and history of the Old Fashioned, I simply could not neglect my own perspective on perhaps the most famous of all cocktails.  Widely considered to be the first drink to actually be labeled a 'cocktail', the Old Fashioned strictly adheres to the accepted definition of such.  As first published in an 1806 editorial response of The Balance and Columbia Repository, the definition of a cocktail was proposed to be 'a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar'.  The Old Fashioned fits this mold precisely, and despite its recipe having not been first published until 1895, was said to have been invented by a bartender at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky some 15 years earlier.  The original recipe called for a sugar cube to be dissolved with a small splash of water, followed by the addition of two dashes of Angostura bitters, an ice cube, lemon peel, and a jigger of whiskey.  In truth, an Old Fashioned cocktail can be based on one of many different base spirits, but perhaps the most common versions use rye or a rye-heavy bourbon.  Other popular variations include substitution with brandy, Canadian whisky (typically high in rye), rum, or one of my more preferred versions, with tequila.  Although slight alterations of the original recipe have been put forth over the years with generally acceptable results, the unfortunate preparation which typically starts with a wedge of orange muddled with simple syrup and a neon red maraschino cherry...and ends with a splash of soda water does the ultimate disrespect to such an iconic drink.  It is mess, often full of pulp from the mashed up fruit, sometimes slightly bitter from the pith, overly sweet from the god awful cherry, and always watered down to make patrons think they are getting more of a drink given its larger volume.  In reality, it throws the spirit under a blanket of crap and is reason enough that I never order an Old Fashioned when out unless I know that the establishment knows their stuff.

When mixing up an original Old Fashioned at home, not surprisingly, I embrace what has enabled this cocktail to withstand the test of time.  With a few slight adaptations of the original (inspired by the likes of Robert Hess and others), I think it is a rather impressive version which still stays true to form.  Rather than dissolve a sugar cube with the combination of water and bitters, I use a standard simple syrup (1:1 ratio) in an effort to avoid the grittiness that results from any undissolved sugar.  This is a widely adopted approach and certainly does not detract from the overall result in my opinion.  Furthermore, I express the oils from a wide strip of orange zest (rather than lemon) into the glass before adding the simple syrup and bitters, gently pressing the citrus against the bottom and sides of the glass with a barspoon as I stir.  Once the syrup, orange, and bitters are well integrated I add an ice cube and stir to further combine and slightly dilute the mixture (25% dilution is generally considered ideal for most cocktails).  Next comes the rye (or bourbon), another cube of ice, two or three more brief stirs, and there you have a great Old Fashioned.

Old Fashioned
1/4 oz simple syrup
2-4 dashes Angostura bitters
2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey

In an old fashioned glass, express orange peel, add simple syrup and bitters, stir to combine.  Add one ice cube, stir.  Add whiskey, another ice cube, and finish with a few more stirs. 

Following on the idea that a number of cocktails can be often be considered slight derivations of others, a discussion of the Old Fashion can rather easily be shifted to one of the Sazerac (essentially sub Peychaud's for Angostura and give the glass an absinthe rinse).  That being said, I will hold off for now as the Sazerac deserves its own share of the spotlight as a quintessential cocktail in its own right.  

Back to a unique spin on the Old Fashioned, here is a favorite of mine...the Cubed Old Fashioned, an outstanding version created by Jamie Boudreau.  Here he uses the combination of three distinct base spirits (cognac, extra-aged rum, and rye), along with a mix of three types of bitters (the obligatory Angostura, it's orange brother, and Bitter Truth Mole), and an Angostura-based 'Old Fashioned' rich simple syrup (2:1 ratio).  Just as this cocktail, his post on the Old Fashioned is a terrific one and well worth a read. 

Cubed Old Fashioned
3/4 oz Remy VSOP cognac
3/4 oz Appleton V/X rum
3/4 oz Rittenhouse rye
1/2 oz Old Fashioned syrup*
1 dash Bitter Truth Xocalatl Mole bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash Angostura orange bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice.  Strain into a chilled rocks glass filled with one giant ice chunk
garnish with orange zest and brandied cherry resting on the top of the glass

Old Fashioned syrup*
200 mL Bourbon or rye
100 mL Angostura bitters
550 mL Turbinado sugar
5 cloves
7 allspice
3 star anise

Stir ingredients in a pot over low heat until all sugar is incorporated and let cool.  Strain and funnel into a sanitized bottle.  Add 1 oz of bourbon or rye to help preserve your syrup.

Jamie's ideas clearly demonstrate and reflect the flexibility of this cocktail.  While the base components and ratios have largely stayed true to form over the years, the adaptability of it inspired me to mess around and perhaps discover a novel spin of my own.  As I mentioned earlier, an Old Fashioned can be built upon any type of base spirit, although the most traditional uses a whiskey (in fact, it was often referred to as an Old Fashioned Whiskey cocktail to remind patrons of its origin).  After experimenting with a number of combinations of syrups, spirits, and bitters, here was one of my more preferred results.

Tequila and Mezcal.  Two related, yet different, spirits distilled from the fermented juice of the hearts (pinas) of the agave plant.  While I could absolutely devote more than a paragraph on the origins, productions, and distinctions between the two, for current purposes, suffice it to say that both tequila and mezcal are terrific when made well and offer unique profiles most notably influenced by the cooking method of the pinas and the aging process.  For this version of an Old Fashioned, I chose to blend an anejo tequila along with the a small batch mezcal.  My intent was to combine the more vibrant agave, citrus, and slight smoke of the mezcal with the richer notes of caramel and fruit from the oak aged tequila.  An additional hint of sweetness comes from an orange infused agave syrup which harmonizes with the citrus components of the mezcal and bitters.  Bittermen's Hopped Grapefruit bitters lends an additional layer of subtle acidity, its bittersweet profile pairing nicely with the spice of Angostura to further draw all the components together

Nectar o(ld) f(ashioned) The Gods*
1 1/2 oz Pueblo Viejo anejo tequila
1/2 oz Del Maguey Vida mezcal
1/4 oz orange agave syrup**
2 dashes Bittermen's Hopped Grapefruit bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters

Add agave nectar to glass along with bitters and one ice cube, stir.  Add tequila and mezcal, another ice cube, a few more stirs, and enjoy.

Orange agave syrup**
1/3 cup agave nectar
1/3 cup water
zest of one orange (6-8 wide strips)

Place agave nectar, water, and orange zest into a small saucepan.  Heat until barely simmering, then reduce heat to low and steep for 20 minutes.  Remove from heat and strain, pressing zest against strainer to extract as much oils as possible.  When cool, add 1/4 oz tequila blanco (or neutral grain spirit) and store in fridge. 

*after creating this cocktail, it had come to my attention that a very similar drink was previously developed by Phil Ward of Death & Co, in NY.  I certainly defer to him as the original creator, my own creation aside.  His Oaxaca Old Fashioned can be found here

Nectar o(ld) f(ashioned) The Gods

As evidenced above, the possibilities here are nearly endless.  The Old Fashioned is a great cocktail for many reasons, but it's simplicity and adaptability are two of its greatest attributes.  So explore with your own favorite spirits and flavor profiles to discover your most preferred version, or simply stick with the classic...but whichever route you pursue, do yourself a favor and keep the fruit pulp and chemical laden cherries for other endeavors, if any such truly exist.  


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