Distilled Knowledge Cocktail: The Old Fashioned

I'd planned to finish this series between now and October 4th - I had friends over so I could bang out a bunch of the book's recipes at once - but, well, Christmas came early yesterday. I don't want to leave my preorder readers in the lurch, so I'm accelerating the Distilled Knowledge recipe series and pulling back the curtain on the full list here.

I started with the [Felodipine] Greyhound, in part because "Does grapefruit juice get you drunker?" was one of the ur-questions that led me to write Distilled Knowledge. But I can't go any further without covering the Old Fashioned, the first drink to bear the name "cocktail."

Let's talk about that name for a moment, because I remember how much it blew my mind the first time I learned where it came from.

The first record we have of what a "cocktail" is comes from 1806. In The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, editor Harry Croswell defined the cocktail as:

 "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters"

(There's a scan of this available via Wikipedia, because we live in the future.)

In those days, and for much of the nineteenth century, drink names referred to preparations that could be applied to a variety of base spirits, rather than to specific recipes. We do this occasionally today - one might order a "Brandy Manhattan" or a "Vodka Martini" and expect to be understood - but the standard assumption is that drink names are proper nouns, uniquely identifying the drinks they describe.

Two hundred years ago, the names of drinks were descriptions. You'd give the base spirit you wanted and a word that indicated your preferred preparation. So you might, for instance, order a Brandy Julep, or a Gin Sour, a Rum Cocktail, etc.

The story of how "cocktail" came to refer to the whole category of mixed drinks is a long and subtle one. David Wondrich covers it brilliantly in Imbibe! For our purposes here, all you need to know is that by the end of the nineteenth century, many things more complicated than the drink Harry Croswell described were referred to as "cocktails."

But there were old-time cocktail drinkers who found this frustrating. How was one to order a stimulating liquor composed of whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters, when "whiskey cocktail" could now refer to a dozen different things?

And so it was that this drink came to be called the "Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail." One can hear the conversation that led to this standard. It must have happened scores of times:

"What'll ya have?"
"A whiskey cocktail."
"What kind of whiskey cocktail? An Improved Whiskey Cocktail, or a Fancy Whiskey Cocktail, or a Manhattan Cocktail, or - "
"No, no, none of those things. I want an old fashioned whiskey cocktail."

In time, we shortened the name to "Old Fashioned," as the number of people who cared about the old meaning of "whiskey cocktail" dwindled. Even in the early twentieth century, we were interpreting "old fashioned" pretty liberally, with muddled fruit of various types finding its way into the drink (beginning an argument that endures to this day).

I prefer my Old Fashioneds simple and, well, old fashioned. Whiskey, sugar, bitters. A little citrus twist as a garnish is about as extravagant as it gets.

Old Fashioned
Place a sugar cube in an Old Fashioned glass. Soak it completely with Angostura bitters and muddle until the sugar is fine or completely dissolved. Stir in two ounces of whiskey. Optionally, place one very large ice cube in the center of the glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

I've presented this as a set of instructions rather than as an ordinary recipe for a few reasons. The first and most boring is that this is how I actually make them, and I'd like to be honest. More philosophically, I think the ritual is an important part of the pleasure in this case, and it seems appropriate to give this most ancient of cocktails a paragraph rather than bullet points.

For an Old Fashioned in this style, you should use a base spirit you'd be content to drink on its own. I used Gunpowder Rye from Portland, Maine, an excellent whiskey that fully embraces the natural spiciness of rye. I haven't seen it further south or west than Boston, but if it's available in your area, I recommend it very highly as a sipping whiskey.

If you must muddle fruit into it, you have about a hundred years of precedent. Add a (pitted) maraschino, brandied, or bourbon cherry and a slice (not a twist; you want the juices in the flesh) to the glass and muddle them along with the sugar and bitters. The drink will be messier and offend some sensibilities, but it will still taste good.

Soda water, on the other hand, has no place in this drink. People have been drinking the darned thing without it for two hundred and ten years. Take the hint.

That'll do it for the Old Fashioned, at least for now. Stay tuned for more updates: there'll be one every couple of days from now until we've finished the list!

Vieux Carré

Vieux Carré (dry)

1 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. dry vermouth
2 barspoons Bénédictine
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir before adding bitters. Serve neat or with ice, as you prefer.

I’ve been wanting to put this one up for a while. I made these left, right, and center while Mardi Gras was upon us, but they were going down so fast I never got a photo of one. Until now!

"Vieux Carré" is the French name for what Anglophones would call the French Quarter, New Orleans’s oldest, most famous neighborhood. The Vieux Carré is not New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, that honor probably falling to the Sazerac, but it was invented there, at the Carousel Bar of the Hotel Monteleone.

This is a nice cocktail in that all of the recipes are very similar. It’s not quite as formulaic as the Negroni, but it’s reasonably easy to get in your head. Start with equal parts of whiskey, brandy and vermouth. Add a spoonful or so of Bénédictine, then top with equal parts of Angostura and Peychaud’s (ordinarily one or two dashes). All the recipes I’ve seen for the Vieux Carré can be described like this, although they quibble over the precise numbers. Mine is more Bénédictine-heavy than most, but, hey, I like Bénédictine.

The Vieux Carré is most commonly found with sweet vermouth. I have to credit Ted Haigh’s Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails with the knowledge that it can be made with the dry stuff as well. It’s a perfect one-for-one substitution. That’s not always the case - Jon and I had to do a lot more doctoring when we tried to make a dry Americano. But in this case, don’t stress about your vermouth. I just use whichever I feel like that day, or in this case, happen to have on hand.

According to Haigh, this drink had been forgotten at the Carousel Bar itself, until very recently. I’m happy to report that this is no longer the case. The Carousel Bar is, in fact, where I first met the Vieux Carré, during Tales of the Cocktail in 2012.

Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned

2 oz. Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey
1/2 or so tsp Demerara simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

The Old Fashioned is the original cocktail. When the word “cocktail” was coined, it referred to a combination of a spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. In the way that Sour, Flip, Fizz, Daisy, Fix, Crusta, and so on are drink categories characterized by particular formulas, so, originally, was Cocktail.

Ordinarily, I encourage the shaking of drinks that feature syrups, but the Old Fashioned has been around longer than cocktail shakers, I say stir. It’s a rough drink, rough in the sense that Teddy Roosevelt was rough. It’s nearly all whiskey. Careful measurements and advanced mixological techniques don’t belong here.

Old Fashioneds historically were made with rye, then with bourbon for many years, and now with rye again. Rye is more complex nine times out of ten, which matters a lot when the flavor palate you’re working with comes 85% or so from the whiskey. I used Bully Boy’s American Straight Whiskey (distilled in Boston!), which is made from a mash halfway between a bourbon and a rye mash. The result is very interesting and very smooth - smoother even than a lot of bourbons, which are allegedly the sweeter American whiskey. Whatever you use to mix these, be sure it’s of decent quality, and you enjoy it. Your particular whiskey selection should be one you would sip on its own.

There is a newer school of Old Fashioneds that involves muddled fruit. These can be enjoyable, but yield a distinctly different drinking experience. I’ll cover them some other time. For now, our foray into Embury’s basic/classic cocktails is concluded. The Daiquiri and the Jack Rose will follow eventually.

Finally, a shout-out to Jon, whose Demerara simple syrup was the sugar I had on hand for this. Demerara has a rich flavor, and makes a syrup that’s almost black. It blends very well with aged liquors.

Manhattan

Manhattan

3 parts (1.5 oz.) Old Overholt rye whiskey
2 parts (1 oz.) Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth
3-4 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters

Yesterday was a snow day for me, so I decided to whip up examples of David Embury’s major classic cocktails. There are six he says everybody ought to be able to make, as a basis for cocktail knowledge, and for further experimentation. I realize I’ve put up plenty of innovations and outlandish drinks, but the really essential standby cocktails haven’t gotten much airtime. That changes now.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make all of them. A trot out to the corner store (good on them, being open) got me the citrus I needed, but I was still short the Daiquiri’s light rum and applejack for the Jack Rose. The others will show up as I load them in, all tagged appropriately.

I started with the Manhattan, one of the most famous and most accessible classic cocktails. The Manhattan is that rare drink that is not merely more, but something else entirely than the sum of its parts. A well-mixed Manhattan does not taste like whiskey or vermouth. It tastes like a Manhattan.

The recipe you see here is a bit of a poor-man’s Manhattan. Old Overholt is perfectly serviceable, but it is bottom-shelf, by rye standards. Now, fortunately, rye whiskey is like applejack, brandy, gin, and dark rum, in that the cheapest stuff you can possibly find will be miles ahead of the glorified ethanol that comes packaged as bottom-shelf vodka, light rum, or nonspecific “whiskey.” I’ll indicate in later posts on the Manhattan what price point we’re talking about. The Manhattan, like many of the classics, falls into the “easy to learn, hard to master” category. It can be varied greatly.

For now, though, let’s talk about the poor-man’s Manhattan. Old Overholt and Jim Beam are the two cheapest ryes on the market. Expect to pay $15 for a fifth. I’ve seen them anywhere from $11 to $22, but $15 is a good estimate. I happened to have Old Overholt, although I tend to prefer the Jim Beam, which is slightly more complex. A tenth-size bottle of Martini & Rossi will hit around $7 or $8 at the most. It is the cheapest vermouth on the market, but as with rye, cheap vermouth is still plenty drinkable.

Never be stingy with the non-whiskey ingredients in a Manhattan, but especially when you’re using bargain ingredients. I say 3-4 dashes here. The bourgeois Manhattan would call for 2-3. The royal Manhattan uses such good stuff the bitters falls to one dash. The vermouth percentage also falls as the whiskey gets better - but I reiterate, don’t be stingy. If your Manhattan is drier than about a 3:1 whiskey:vermouth ratio, you’d be better off with an Old Fashioned.

The end result is extremely drinkable, and a good example of how to do cocktails on a budget. If you (and your guests) are used to drinking nothing but highballs, the Manhattan is a great transition drink. Just be careful with your vermouth, which will eventually spoil if left out. Keep it in the fridge, and you should be fine.