As the spirits columnist for the New York Times, Robert Simonson is one of the leading chroniclers of the cocktail renaissance. In his new book, The Old-Fashioned, he explores the history of the drink as the “ur-cocktail,” from creation to ascension to corruption to its revival as the star of the contemporary cocktail movement. The Old-Fashioned will be available on May 13th from Ten Speed Press, but we’ve got a sneak peek with 3 recipes below – just in time to change up your Derby Day whiskey routine. Pre-order it today from Amazon or Ten Speed Press.
The post-WWII surge in the Old-Fashioned’s popularity among a new demographic of drinkers rubbed certain people — particularly ancient tipplers who could remember the before-times — the wrong way. By their account, there had been a falling off in quality. As cultural critic Gilbert Seldes put it, “Prohibition has created a nation of men and women who do not know what to do with the liquor they so hardly come by.”
“Consider, for instance, the old-fashioned cocktail,” began an ominous 1936 letter to the editor at the New York Times. “Nowadays the modern or ex-speakeasy bartender drops a spoonful of powdered sugar into a glass, adds a squirt of carbonic to aid dissolution, adds to that a dash or two of some kind of alleged bitters and a lump of ice, regardless of size. Then he proceeds to build up a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple, and cherry, and himself pours in a carefully measured ounce and a half of bar whiskey, usually a blend, and gives one a glass rod to stir it with. Price, 35 to 50 cents. Profanation and extortion.”
“There are a few old-time bartenders working now and they commit these crimes with tears in their eyes,” the old-timer continued. “But they say the present generation of drinkers wants them that way, that the present customs were adopted during prohibition to disguise the horrible taste of the terrible liquor… Prohibition has much to answer for besides crime and racketeering.”
And so the fruit wars began: a battle between purity and frippery, between paring the drink down and loading it up. The struggle continues to this very day. Fruit had made plenty of appearances in Old-Fashioneds prior to Prohibition. But it was almost always used as a decorative garnish, and even back then, there were folks who complained of it. Humorist Don Marquis — the New York Sun columnist who created the deathless cockroach and cat, Archy and Mehitabel — published a series of pre-Prohibition sketches featuring the ruminations of a character called the Old Soak. In one, he calls for an Old-Fashioned Whiskey cocktail with not “too much orange and that kind of damned garbage” in it. “I want the kick.”
Old Soak and his friends would have had no difficulty finding a bartender sympathetic to the idea of a fruit-free Old-Fashioned back in the days before the Volstead Act. After Prohibition, however, fruit seemed to be the rule. And the produce was everywhere: on top of the drink as an orange-cherry “flag”; swimming at the bottom of the drink; and, horror of horrors, muddled along with the sugar and bitters prior to the addition of whiskey, producing a sort of Old-Fashioned soup. This was the case not only in the United States but also in London, Paris, Spain, and elsewhere. During an era when the Martini grew progressively stronger — with the gin to vermouth ratio growing apart at a staggering rate, to the point where vermouth nearly disappeared completely — the Old-Fashioned grew weaker and wan.
However the alternative style came about, the fruit-salad style sent Old-Fashioned purists into conniptions as nothing had since the dark days of the 1870s, when mixologists tried to dash curaçao and absinthe into Whiskey cocktails. Reactionary conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, never one to mince words, called the Old-Fashioned, circa 1938, “A fruit salad dunked in rye and crowned with a sprig of turnip greens.”
Today’s widespread experimentation notwithstanding, when you’re talking about an authentic Old-Fashioned, the central debate is always this: rye or bourbon. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, preferences were probably fairly evenly split and depended heavily on region. In the decades after Prohibition, bourbon slowly but surely developed an edge, and rye, thought old-fashioned and somewhat disreputable (The Lost Weekend, etc.), fell into eclipse. In recent years, rye has made a big come¬back, so drinkers once again have a choice. Doctrinaire purists tend to insist on rye, thinking it the more historically authentic choice, but both function admirably. Simply put, bourbon will give you a mellower and sweeter cocktail, whereas rye will deliver a bit more spice and kick. Among American whiskeys that provide the best value for their price — and make an outstanding Old-Fashioned — I recommend Elijah Craig 12 Year Old and Henry McKenna Single Barrel (make sure it’s the bonded) bourbons, and Rittenhouse 100-Proof and Bulleit ryes. (McKenna, which can be difficult to find outside Kentucky, strikes a nice balance, spice-wise, between the Elijah Craig and Rittenhouse).
2 ounces rye or bourbon
1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Muddle the sugar, bitters, and a barspoon of warm water at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass until the sugar is dissolved. Add the rye or bourbon. Stir. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
Given your average modern mixologist’s love for both the Old-Fashioned and the bitter Italian digestivo Fernet Branca, the name of this drink was a foregone conclusion. This is simply an Old-Fashioned with an extra herbal, menthol punch. It’s basically a twist on the Toronto cocktail, except that drink traditionally calls for Canadian whisky and an orange twist, and is served up. I am generally partial to orange twists in my Old-Fashioned, but the extra bite and brightness of a lemon twist is a must here. Given the level of rampant invention in the cocktail community, I have little doubt that this exact drink has already been created by some bartender in some bar somewhere. But that bartender didn’t write this book.
2 ounces Buffalo Trace bourbon
¼ ounce Fernet Branca
1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Muddle the sugar, bitters, and a barspoon of warm water at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass until the sugar is dissolved. Add the bourbon and Fernet Branca and one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
Ode To Atkins
Rob Roy, a cocktail bar in Seattle, is known for its way with an Old-Fashioned. “The drink was inspired by a drink that Erik Adkins had on the Heaven’s Dog menu,” says owner Anu Apte, mentioning the San Francisco bar. “When I came back to Seattle I wanted to make it for a guest but I couldn’t remember the exact recipe so I made something similar.” Though the Haiti-made Barbancourt is a very specific choice, it’s the dark, rich buckwheat honey that defines this drink, giving it a cloudy appearance and rangy, full-bodied character. I recommend a large lemon twist.
2 ounces Barbancourt 15 Year Old rum
½ ounce Buckwheat Honey Syrup (see below)
4 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine all the ingredients except the lemon twist in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
Buckwheat Honey Syrup
½ cup buckwheat honey
½ cup water
Combine the buckwheat honey and water in a saucepan over low heat. Stir until blended. Remove from the heat and let cool before using. Stored tightly sealed in the refrigerator, the syrup will keep for 1 week.
Makes ½ cup
Reprinted with permission from The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photography © 2014 by Daniel Krieger.