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Ask A Bartender: What Is Old Fashion?

Friday, June 05, 2015

 

By the time Don Draper was drinking them, the old fashioned cocktail was already a misnomer.

We can thank Mad Men for its significant role in the classic cocktail’s resurgence. It was happening before to be sure, but the show certainly is responsible for a lot more young people coming up to the bar and ordering an old fashioned cocktail. This is not a bad thing. The old fashioned is a great cocktail even if it does have a misleading and ironic name. Its comeback has come not a moment to soon and I think we can learn a lot from it.  

There are a myriad of ways to make the old fashioned cocktail but enthusiasts will tell you there’s only one. Purists will make it with bitters, sugar lump, a tiny splash of water and a hefty amount of rye whiskey. They may garnish it with a lemon peel. No orange, no cherry. If they order one at a bar they may even say “hold the garbage” (meaning none of the aforementioned fruit) but please don’t do that unless you’re at least ninety-five years old. Some people will serve it up. Some will serve it with one big ice cube in a small rocks glass. Some will just pour Rock and Rye into a glass and call it done. Probably most people nowadays make it with bourbon rather than rye. The point is that every drink has multiple variations and the key is not to pick the first one ever made, but the one that is the best. Because cocktail history is not reliable, (alcohol has a way of omitting certain facts while exaggerating others) we’ll never really know how the first old fashioned cocktail was built, anyway. Therefore, there is no definitive old fashioned.   

By the mid sixties when Don Draper was drinking them, the old fashioned had already morphed into its modern incarnation with the addition of garbage. Both versions have their merits. The old fashioned with garbage is, for our intents and purposes, the old fashioned. Very few people on this planet are old enough to wax nostalgic about the old fashioned done in an old fashioned way. Most of us were born into the garbage. We are nostalgic for old fashioned times and we should be, but ordering an old fashioned cocktail will not magically change the fact that you’re in a public setting wearing a Def Leppard t-shirt, flip flops and cargo shorts. 

Nor should it. The hunt for authenticity is as frivolous as it is arduous. If your intention is to recreate the genuine article, then get yourself an old bartender’s guide and go to town. But remember that in the old days, they were not trying to be old fashioned, they were trying to move forward. Wanting to be authentic makes it impossible to be authentic. 

What makes an old fashioned cocktail- or an old fashioned anything- superior, is the attention to detail. Not the style itself but the thought put into it. The best way to pay homage to our forefathers and foremothers is not to dress like them and drink close facsimiles of their cocktails, but to honor their sacrifices by not being a total slob.     
Do the modern thing in an old fashioned way. Do the thing you want to do and do it well. 

So if you really want to get fussy and carry the torch of authenticity forward, don’t get caught up in image and start thinking about intent. If your intent is to look cute in a dead man’s clothes, you’re not authentic. You’re contrived. If your intent is simply to put forward the proper amount of effort into your relaxation, you’re onto something.   

All that being said, the old fashioned cocktail is a beautiful thing when done proper. And there are a few ways to do it proper. Here are two of them. 

Old Fashion Old Fashioned
Sugar cube
Small splash of soda or still water (to dissolve the sugar)
Dash bitters
2 oz. rye whiskey 
Muddle sugar, soda and bitters. Pour in rye. Put in ice. Stir. Garnish with lemon peel. 

Modern Old Fashioned
Sugar cube
Small splash of soda or still water (to dissolve the sugar)
Cherry 
Orange Slice
Dash bitters
2 oz. rye whiskey 
Muddle sugar, orange slice, cherry, soda and bitters. Pour in rye. Put in ice. Stir. 

 

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