One of the best things I learned in high school (go Rams!) was from my music teacher during my freshman year. Doug Otis told us how if you were ever sitting, listening to a piano player play, rather than go up and request a song, throw some dough in the guy’s jar and ask him to play something that he normally only plays for himself. At the time I remember it being significant, and given my memory’s ability to be unreliable, I, for awhile, was surprised that I remembered it, but it’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.
I was at a county fair my last year of high school with my dad, and we both watched as this older, bearded gentleman, made a man appear out of the corner of a piece of wood. His booth was covered with curls of carved wood, nooks and crannies removed with precise and efficient strokes, and when I asked him- amazed- how he’d done it, he showed rather than told. After 5 years in the Boy Scouts I thought I was an expert, but watching that old gent practice his craft at his most practiced form was something I’ll never forget.
Rip Van Winkle
Drinks really aren’t all that different.
The Old Fashioned is one of the oldest cocktails around America. Here’s a quick history:
The first documented definition of the word “cocktail” was in response to a reader’s letter asking to define the word in the May 6, 1806, issue of The Balance and Columbia Repository in Hudson, New York. In the May 13, 1806, issue, the paper’s editor wrote that it was a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar; it was also referred to at the time as a bittered sling.
By the 1860s, it was common for orange curacao, absinthe, and other liqueurs to be added to the cocktail. The original concoction, albeit in different proportions, came back into vogue, and was referred to as “old-fashioned”
So for me, I look at an Old Fashioned as just about the best game of Telephone
played. Every bartender I’ve ever met has learned to make this drink from an older/better bartender that they’ve worked with. And that’s probably the way it should be. There isn’t, for my money, a right answer to this drink. Many versions taste good, a few versions are the best cocktail you’ve ever had, and a fair few absolutely ruin the name Old Fashioned. That’s just how it goes.
As usual, I finally arrive at the point. If you walk into a bar and order an Old Fashioned, and don’t qualify it in any way, be prepared to receive the drink the way that particular barkeep drinks it. And there’s no sendbacks here, it may as well be a bottle of wine (#1,688- Order Wine for the Table).
Listen- you can walk up to any bartender and ask him to mash a cherry and a packet of sugar over an orange slice and dump in some bourbon with ice and that’s fine,
and that’s your drink, because (#3,771) Drink Your Drink, but an Old Fashioned isn’t yours- it belongs to all of us, it’s a bit too long in the tooth to owe anything to you, so you order an Old Fashioned, you take what you’re given.
If you’re looking for an exactitude of a drink, there are plenty of standardized drinks that won’t taste much different with an extra drop of vermouth or a splash too much Campari
, but this isn’t a Margarita- who’s true recipe might as well be written in stone (Tequila + Cointreau + Lime Juice. 7 parts to 4 parts to 3 parts), and it isn’t a Manhattan
, who’s use of the Golden Ratio
make it a timeless classic, this is a drink that has been passed on by word of mouth, by raw barbacks watching the old pro, by folks who gave up on acting fifteen years ago because they could make the liquid gold dance for them. It’s a drink built on time and creativeness, on peoples’ ability to take what is old an make it new- to make a new drink for every patron, an opportunity to refine and rebuild every time the door swings open.
There is another aspect to it as well. There’s something to be said for having a big Old Fashioned sample-size. I don’t know that I’ve seen two bartenders make it the same- close, yes- but the same, not really. It’s easy to tell outright who’s just trying to make an Old Fashioned and who’s making a drink that they drink, a drink with some history, who’s building a drink with an inkling of respect toward what that drink represents. And you should be drinking at bars at which the latter type of bartender works.
So drink this drink anywhere, everywhere. Watch it made, watch the effort that goes into your cocktail. Take some satisfaction in the fact that though the exact ingredients may have changed a bit between the one on your lips and the original, between then and now Men came through and ordered this drink when they needed a pick me up and a cool ’em down and a precursor to some knuckles and their saving grace and one last one before the night claimed them.
Sip slowly, and don’t be too quick to judge- no matter what, there’s good whisky in there that shouldn’t be wasted.