More than creatures of habit, we are creatures of fatuous trends. Nowhere is this more plainly obvious than in drinking. Periodically, we see seismic shifts in the drinking fashions when a new movie or television show features a classic cocktail and the throngs of followers now have their golden fleece to pursue – whether it’s James Bond’s “shaken not stirred” martini or Don Draper’s old-fashioned. Of course, the trend is replete with era-specific costumes, and thus even more sad, because I’d like to think social mores march to progress over time, rather than falling back on era-specific rationales about when “men were men” and other such obsolete banalities.
But, then again, bartenders and bar owners like myself are probably the most guilty at perpetuating this peculiar breed of atavism. After all, what was the classic cocktail movement on its surface if not a call for us to return to the drinking styles of the late 19th century? And, yes, we donned vests, arm garters and mustaches in keeping with the height of fashion in 1862. It was fun for a while, but now, when I think of mumbling a password to enter a spottily lit bar with costumed bartenders, I start to feel that particular ontological emptiness for which the soul has no recourse but despair.
But despair not, we move forward! – hopefully, incorporating the best ideas from our previous fancies, studying and searching, using them presently to improve what we drink and the quality of our service. But how to move forward, and toward what, is worth asking when we know that the public is ceaselessly drawn back, frivolous in their praise and fickle in their allegiances. That’s why I must put a lame horse down before it’s taken to track – Mad Men.
Yes, before you once again reach for your skinny tie and pocket square, before you consider slapping your secretary’s ass and carrying a flask to work, let’s consider well the quality of drinking we’re encouraging by the liquid laudation of Mad Men.
I know, you love the show. And I do too. In fact, I’ve even conveniently sided with the show to encourage people to discover classic cocktails but, if I was to be realistic, drinking like a Mad Man is an embarrassing relic of a time long gone. Sure, there are classic cocktails in name, but during that era, we were already seeing the downward slide of bartending mastery toward what would become a desolate era, where cocktails that, while good in some cases, lacked both depth and sophistication. Does every cocktail have to be dripping with complexity? Absolutely not. I like a good Harvey Wallbanger, but we seldom hold up a Little Debbie cake to renowned chef René Redzepi’s Nordic cuisine or a tricycle to a Porsche.
That’s not to say a few distant outposts didn’t exist during the 60’s where great drinks and great drinking cultures flourished, but we’re talking of the whole. Below I’ve listed four reasons you shouldn’t drink like Mad Men.
Don’t Let Your Children Make Cocktails
I appreciate the idea of one’s own children being used for cheap domestic labor (so did my stepfather) but I hardly see them as good barkeeps, especially when they’re not properly instructed. Their hands are just too small, and there is a tendency to overcompensate for this fact by using the force of one’s whole body in an instance that calls for a delicate stir or muddle. Plus, they’ll never taste the outcome. How can they know when it’s properly done? When Don Draper tells his daughter that muddling means smashing in his old-fashioned, I cringe a little. I imagine that horrendous commercial with bartenders over-muddling Mojitos and see the bright red cherry smushed into stringy particles, both connected and separated, stem on, when Sally Beth does her best to smash the fruit. If you have a child who you believe is trainable, by all means. But please take the time to show them the right way to make a drink or, otherwise, make your own.
Fruit in an Old-Fashioned is Terrible
While we’re on the subject of putting cherries and oranges in your old-fashioned, I think it’s a terrible idea. Forget the fact that this was a somewhat later addition to the drink – it’ll have no bearing on my opinion. An old-fashioned that doesn’t taste of whiskey is like a fast car driven underwater or boxer taught to run track: it does so little to serve its purpose (and the greatest waste in the world is that of potential). We know the whiskey is in there, so why is it buried under orange rinds and cherry flocculation? I pray for an end to this scourge and forgiveness for those who take good whiskey and make of it a bad drink. The greatest recipe for an old-fashioned, and the perfect antidote to the Don Draper kind, appears in Bernard DeVoto’s The Hour and is reprinted below:
To make a slug of whiskey, you pour some whiskey on some ice. The slug of whiskey is functional; its lines are clean. Perhaps the friend for whom you make it will want two or three drops of bitters. Fine: there is no harm in bitters, so long as they are Angostura — all others are condiments for a tea-shoppe cookbook. If he wants fruit salad in it, remind him that cocktails are drunk, not eaten, but go along with him as far as a thin half-slice of orange or, better, one of lemon peel. Deny him pineapple, cherries, and such truck as you would cyanide. If he asks for sugar, tell him you put it in to begin with, and thereafter be wary in your dealings with him. For sugar means that he is backsliding and will soon cross the frontier to join the heathen, with bottles of grenadine and almond extract in his pack. But before you give a slug of whiskey to anyone be sure that it is cold. Cocktails are cold.
Canadian Whisky is not Rye, It’s More Often Watered Down Bourbon
But then again, maybe I’m up to being too praiseworthy toward the whiskey Mad Men drink. They often call for rye, which, in this case, is not rye at all, but Canadian whisky. Really a watered down version of Bourbon. Canadian whisky has been rightly called “brown vodka” by our editor, Jason Wilson, and, with few exceptions, he’s right. Use real rye whiskey in your Old Fashioneds or, at least, a quality-oriented Canadian Whisky like Lot No. 40 or Masterson’s, which is actually a rye whisky (and here the spelling gets confusing between with and without an “e”). Both Lot No. 40 and Masterson’s scored double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year, for which I’m a judge. Bourbon works too, but use less sugar. Rye is a little spicy usually; bourbon, a touch more confectionary.
A Martini without Vermouth is Not a Martini
Lastly, the greatest problem I have with Mad Men is the gradual decline of vermouth and bitters in the gin martini and eventual replacement of gin with vodka. Fortunately, gin still reigns thus far in the story, but the vermouth is now either dribbled in or waved by the bottle, a silly posturing that has done more to devolve society than both TV dinners and jug wine. An article in Time magazine from 1959 entitled “Manner & Morals: Drier & Drier,” chronicles the course of the martini and introduces the Naked Martini, devoid of vermouth all together. Such a tremendous shame, and one I’ll rest on the shoulders of the men who inspired Mad Men. Because of this, generations to follow would crack jokes at the expense of vermouth and swirl and dump it in the glass before adding their warm gin or vodka. I’ve argued before that a martini without vermouth is no more a martini than a bite taken out of the leg of a cow is a steak. But I’m done arguing by analogy. I love gin but it simply doesn’t taste as good without its partner in this drink. I’ll paraphrase James Brown by saying that the martini is a gin drink, but it wouldn’t be a damn thing with vermouth’s touch.
Not Don Draper’s Old Fashioned
Again, avoid the fruit. Just a peel and bitters. That’s all you need.
- 2 ounces rye or good Canadian whisk(e)y
- ¼ ounces simple syrup
- Dash aromatic bitters
- Lemon peel
Gently muddle peel with syrup and bitters. Add ice and whiskey and stir until chilled.
The Real Dry Martini
This is also know as the 50/50. Dry used to mean dry gin and dry vermouth and not the abscense of vermouth. Make sure it’s really cold.
- 1½ ounces dry gin
- 1½ ounces dry vermouth
- Dash orange bitters
Combine ingredients with ice in mixing glass and stir until very cold. Strain into chilled glass and spray oils from lemon peel on top of the drink. Order olives on the side.
If all else fails, go ahead: drink a Harvey Wallbanger. Why not?
- 1½ ounces vodka
- ¾ ounces Galliano
- 3-4 ounces orange juice
Add vodka over ice in highball. Pour in OJ and float Galliano on top.