What to Drink if You're a Whiskey Lover
The Old-Fashioned (often spelled without the hyphen) is one of the oldest cocktails around. Indeed, it’s a pretty good example of how the original cocktails were made way back in the early 1800s (more about that later). In its day, it was the king of cocktails.
Today? Not many people drink it, or have even tasted it. In fact, the only thing many people know about it is that it’s the elixir of choice of Don Draper, of Mad Men fame.
Too bad. If you crave whiskey, no other mixed drink better showcases the deep, rich flavor of good old American bourbon or rye. And few drinks are easier to make: You need only whiskey, bitters, and sugar.
With the weather turning chilly, now is the perfect time to enjoy this bracing piece of Americana. So why not try the drink that your great-great-great-great-great grandfather used to enjoy? Nothing is more old fashioned than that.
Recipe: The Old-Fashioned Cocktail
Although today most people want whiskey in their Old-Fashioned cocktails, you can actually use any liquor — gin, brandy, tequila, whatever. That’s because the name refers more to a style of drink-making (an algorithm) than to the actual drink itself. Originally, an Old-Fashioned was made with whatever liquor the imbiber fancied.
The classic way to make an Old-Fashioned is to take a sugar cube, add a couple of dashes of bitters, and then just a bit of water — maybe a teaspoon, only what you need to dissolve the sugar. Then you muddle (mash) them together until the sugar dissolves. At that point you add ice, then the liquor you prefer (whiskey, I say!), and stir to combine. Drink. That’s it. Some people prefer to stir the whiskey and sugar mix together before adding the ice.
Of course, when a drink is this simple, some people can’t resist “improving” it. Over the years, many variations have appeared — some quite outlandish. Certain bartenders top the glass with water (plain or charged). Wrong! (See the Notes). Or they add an orange slice (or orange juice) to the sugar, and muddle that along with the bitters. Or they use a bit of maraschino cherry juice. Also wrong, although some of those variations are tasty (again, see Notes).
Really, the only way to improve the drink is to substitute Simple Syrup for the sugar cube. These days, sugar cubes can be hard to find and simple syrup is much easier to use (though it’s fun to muddle the cube). Purists may shudder (“lump sugar or nothing!” they’d say), but simple syrup makes a better drink.
This recipe serves 1, and takes about 5 minutes to prepare.
- 1 teaspoon Simple Syrup (you may want a bit more or less depending on how sweet your bourbon is)
- 2 dashes of Angostura bitters (you can substitute another type of bitters, but Angostura makes a dandy Old-Fashioned)
- 2 ounces of bourbon or rye (bourbon is the way most people enjoy this drink, but rye makes a superior drink, IMO)
- lemon twist, orange twist, or maraschino cherry for garnish (optional; I usually skip the garnish, but see the Notes)
- Add the simple syrup and bitters to a “rocks” (short) glass (see Notes if you’re using table sugar). Add ice cubes (not a lot — 3 cubes, 4 at the most) and pour the whiskey over the cubes.
- Stir well to combine (you may want to let the drink rest for a minute after stirring, so all the flavors meld together). Garnish (or not), and serve.
- Today we call all mixed drinks “cocktails.” But originally cocktails were “short” drinks meant to be drunk in the morning as a “bracer.” The first cocktails contained liquor and bitters, and often a sweetener. But nothing else. So the Old-Fashioned is an excellent example of an original cocktail (although if you’re drinking this in the morning, I suggest you examine your soul).
- In the last third of the 19th century, cocktails became more elaborate and varied. That’s when the Martini and Manhattan were born, for example. At some point, the drink we’re featuring today came to be called the Old-Fashioned to distinguish it from “modern” (for that era) drinks. People who ordered it wanted a drink made in the “old fashioned” style, with just sugar and bitters added to liquor.
- Bourbon is the whiskey most people use in an Old-Fashioned. You can use any name brand you prefer (I like Evan Williams for mixed drinks, but you might want to use a better brand).
- The sweetness of bourbons varies from brand to brand, so you may want to adjust the amount of simple syrup you use when making this drink to balance it properly.
- Rye is spicier than bourbon, which is why I prefer to use it in Old-Fashioneds. If you can find it, Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond makes a superb Old-Fashioned.
- For another drink that showcases rye (or bourbon, if you prefer), you might want to try the Manhattan cocktail. It’s a close second to the Old-Fashioned as a vehicle for whiskey, IMO — although sweet vermouth makes it a more complex drink.
- If you don’t have simple syrup, add about a teaspoon of sugar to the glass, along with the bitters and a teaspoon of water. Mash the sugar and liquid together with a spoon until the sugar is dissolved. Then add the ice and the whiskey.
- Quite a few Old-Fashioned recipes tell you to top off the glass with water (still or sparkling). Why? I’m not sure, although I suspect it’s to make the glass look more full. Most “rocks” glasses are large, and this drink will only half-fill them (unless you’re making a double, of course). In any case, I advise against adding water, which makes for a weak, unsatisfying drink. Melting ice provides all the dilution this cocktail needs. Drink it with added water, and you’ll understand why the drink went out of style!
- Some of those water-topped recipes also specify frantic stirring — for 2 or 3 minutes. And it’s true that the drink has better flavor if the sugar, bitters, and whiskey are well blended. But you really need to stir for only 20 seconds or so when you use simple syrup — the syrup and bitters will blend with the whiskey on their own.
- Some recipes call for muddling an orange twist or slice with the sugar. Those who advocate doing so claim that the skin of the twist abrades the sugar, helping it dissolve. And this drink does taste pretty good with just a hint of orange flavor. But if that’s what you want, I suggest adding an orange twist (or slice if you really want more orange) as garnish.
- Some people like to add OJ and/or maraschino cherry juice to their Old-Fashioneds. Kingsley Amis, in Everyday Drinking (a reissue of 3 of his books on drinks), suggests adding a teaspoon of maraschino cherry juice and a “hefty squeeze” of fresh OJ. Not bad — I’ve made his recipe — but not as good as my version, IMO.
- A lemon twist is my favorite garnish for this drink. But most people prefer an orange twist or slice, and maybe a maraschino cherry. I often omit the garnish entirely — particularly when I’m channeling my inner Harry Truman (for more on that, see below).
The Trumans’ Favorite
In the past, we’ve featured several cocktails that were favorites of US presidents. John F. Kennedy liked the Classic Daiquiri. Richard Nixon was partial to a Mai Tai. Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed mixing his own Dry Martini. And FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, favored the Old-Fashioned. In fact, both Truman and his wife, Bess, enjoyed having one each night before dinner.
One story says that on their first evening in the White House, the Trumans asked the White House butler to serve them Old-Fashioneds. He complied, mixing a heavily garnished drink.
They drank them silently — and subsequently told the butler to make them less sweet. Mrs. Truman reportedly said, “They make the worst Old-Fashioneds here I’ve ever tasted! They’re like fruit punch!”
Over the next few evenings, the butler struggled to mix Old-Fashioneds to the Trumans’ liking. But none of the standard recipes satisfied them. Finally, in despair, the butler simply poured bourbon over ice — no sugar, no bitters, and definitely no garnish — and served them what amounted to bourbon on the rocks.
Mrs. Truman was delighted, reportedly saying, “Now that’s the way we like our Old-Fashioneds!”
Well, bourbon on the rocks is a good drink, but it’s not really an Old-Fashioned. You do need the bitters. And most people want a bit of sugar (although if your bourbon is on the sweet side, you might want to skip that).
But all the elaborate “fruit punch” juices and garnish? I’m with Bess Truman. Ixnay on that.
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