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!



Nothing piques my interest like something distilled from a whole new species of plant. (That's right, folks - the world's got more than grapes, grains, and sugar canes!)

Jon can attest to this, because I've been badgering him to get me some White Lion VSOA ever since I gave up on finding it in Boston. White Lion is a Ceylon arrack, the distillate of fermented coconut flower nectar (not, as previously posted, fermented palm sap; thanks go predictably to Jon for the correction).

Like the name suggests, it's made primarily in Sri Lanka. White Lion is the only company currently selling it in the U.S., and at present, it's only available in California, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Don't ask me why they picked those five; must be a vendetta against the east coast or something.

Fortunately, while I wait for my Chicago palm brandy to arrive, I've stumbled on something much closer to home and even stranger: Chesuncook.

Called a gin by its makers at Maine Craft Distilling, I suppose it technically is. Juniper is the dominant flavor, making it a ginnier gin than a lot of American entrants in the category. But the base distillate, rather than being derived from a cereal grain, is made from carrots.


Apparently there is some history of drinking carrot booze. Distiller Luke Davidson swears that he knew "a lot of people" who made carrot wine when he was growing up. (No, really.) And I suppose it's not so far-fetched. Potatoes and ginger roots are very happy to ferment - why should carrots be any different?

In the photograph, you can see that it has a slight orange tint, which, absent mention of coloring agents, I'm forced to believe is natural. The rest of the botanicals are a bit unusual for gin, including basil and mint, but downright conservative by contemporary standards - be they French, Scottish, Oregonian, or Scottish again

Ryan Magarian, one of the minds behind Aviation, has a very interesting take on the modern world of gin, kindly published at Drink Spirits for us all to read. He's in favor of recognizing the increasingly common non-juniper-forward spirits as a distinct subcategory, called "New Western Dry Gin."

That would make life easier for those of us used to saying, "Well, it's a gin, but it's not a super juniperry gin, and it's not, like, a dry gin - definitely not a London dry, I mean, it's not even English - but it's really botanical, you know? Like vegetal, but not too savory? No, it tastes nothing like Hendrick's," every time a new gin comes on the market.

On the other hand, each expansion of the gin palette (or palate, for that matter) further exposes the category to what no one wants to admit: it's entirely arbitrary. Distinguishing bourbon, brandy, and applejack is natural, since they're made from different things. Distinguishing "gin" from spice-infused vodka is surprisingly difficult.

Magarian, and serious gin-makers generally, still recognize that a gin must be flavored "predominantly" with juniper. There are a thousand other elements to the craft and tradition of gin-making, driving at goals wildly different from those of flavored vodkas; but these are hard to understand when you only see the gin in the bottle or in the glass. In practice, the juniper berry is the throughline of gin, from its first distillation to the present and from England to Australia. A reasonable person may nevertheless wonder whether the rise in popularity of "gins for non-gin-drinkers" is watering down the category.

Chesuncook is decidedly not a gin for non-gin-drinkers. It is a gin for Maine gin drinkers, and perhaps best of all for Acadian gin drinkers. It'll put hair on your chest, is what I'm saying. After my first sip, I swear I could hear better - as if the spirit had burned its way up my sinuses to clear out my ear canals.

It exists on a flavor spectrum of which the extremes are carrot juice and London dry gin, noticeably closer to the latter. The nose is warm, summery, and a bit fruity. There's a wallop of of juniper throughout the sip. "Earthy" is a common tasting note; it's accurate, but the element is subtle. The other botanicals sit quietly in the background. This is my first encounter with Maine Craft Distilling, and I don't expect it to be my last.

I'd be very curious to know whether the folks there wanted to make a gin from the start, or tried Undoctored Carrot Spirit (Carrot Brandy? Carrot Whiskey? Carrotjack?) and found it lacking. The Portland Press Herald's survey of local gins seems to imply the former, but the surplus carrots they found could easily have come before the idea.

I'd like to take a moment at this juncture to recognize Liquor World, in Porter Square, Cambridge, for living up to their motto of "Curious Beers, Smart Wines, & Adventurous Spirits." Few are the liquor-sellers to have provided me a novel organism to drink. These guys are generally fond of things weird, and have the most comprehensive selection of local spirits I've seen in greater Boston.



3 oz. Harpoon Summer
2 oz. Privateer True American Rum
1 oz. St. Elder liqueur

Serve with ice.

We have a good local distillery scene in New England, but the brewery world is a force to be reckoned with. That meant I played with beer and cider cocktails quite a lot during my local-ingredients challenge.

Harpoon's summer ale was nice and refreshing on its own. Add rum for body and elderflower liqueur for complexity (and, admittedly, a bit of sugar), and you've got a relaxing long drink for mid-July.

St. Elder is produced in Somerville, Mass., which is what inspired the name. "Camberville" is the nickname for the area along the Cambridge-Somerville border - which, as any map will tell you, is about as arbitrary a line as you can get.

St. Elder, while we're on the topic, is of comparable quality with the better-known St. Germain, but retails for half the price. I think it actually pairs better with aged spirits than its pricier cousin does. If they sell it in your area, I highly recommend getting a bottle.



Combine equal parts Bully Boy American Straight Whiskey and Moxie in a rocks glass, with ice. Stir in a drizzle of fresh rhubarb syrup.

The drink is named in honor of Ted Williams, who, like E.B. White and Calvin Coolidge, loved him some Moxie.

Bully Boy’s American Straight Whiskey isn’t quite a bourbon or a rye, being 40% corn, 40% rye, and 20% barley, last I heard. What it is, is delicious. It stands up against other flavors like a rye but is smoother drinking than most bourbons are. It’s one of the few whiskies I’d be prepared to pair with Moxie and rhubarb, simultaneously; most others would either taste foul (hello, Scotch) or get drowned out completely.

Bully Boy makes a whole line of spirits right here in Boston. The skinny is here: http://www.bullyboydistillers.com/bully-boy-american-straight-whiskey.html

Jen Rose

Jen Rose

1 1/2 oz. Berkshire Mountain’s Greylock Gin
1/2 oz. cranberry syrup
1/4 oz. lime juice

Shake with ice and serve neat.


A gin spin on the Jack Rose, created as a test drive for homemade cranberry syrup. This was one of my earliest ideas for a locally-sourced ingredient substitution, taking the place of grenadine. Properly, grenadine is sweetened, boiled-down pomegranate juice. Cranberries have the same tart, bitter palate pomegranates do; I haven’t yet found a cocktail in which you can’t substitute one for the other.

This of course means you can make a Jen Rose with grenadine, too.

2013 Summer Cocktail Series Kickoff

I promised to fill in some old favorites when I started this, so here are some highlights from the 2013 Summer Cocktail Series. Now that the weather’s turned, it felt appropriate to start putting up bright, cheery pictures.

The theme was drinking locally, so everything possible was sourced in New England, including and especially the spirits. I allowed myself reasonable exceptions for citrus, spices, sugar (sometimes), and fancy foreign liqueurs without local equivalents (rarely).

This is just a shot of the arsenal. The recipes will come after.