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Old Fashioned Versions

Source: D.L. Chandler / D.L. Chandler

Welcome to Spirit.Ed, a weekly feature at CASSIUS that aims to educate the masses on the finer points of sipping. You won’t get any “real man” points for downing your hooch straight because we’re following the idea that you should drink what you like exactly how you like. That said, if you’re a person who wants to expand how they imbibe, then we believe Spirit.Ed should be your new hub. And now, a quick word below from Spirit.Ed’s D.L. Chandler.

Nothing in the world beats a well-made cocktail at the end of a workday, or just for the sheer hell of it (especially amid a pandemic). Like many who partake of the spirits, I humbly drank whatever I could afford, and later that turned into whatever I could get my hands on. I’ve spent many a night nursing a headache after one too many rum and cokes, and I certainly earned my porcelain prayer stripes after taking down a few vodka and cranberry cocktails.

It took me some time to discover the classics cocktails that we’ll cover in the first few articles here at Spirit.Ed. Since opening my mind and expanding my knowledge of spirits, I’ve learned that drinks I would have never ordered back in my early 20s are now staples that I expect to be crafted with care lest I return the beverage with some criticism. Does it come off snooty? Perhaps. But if you’re spending hard-earned money to drink and drink well, it should be to your liking.

I’d like to credit cocktail writer Robert Simonson for inspiring me to create Spirit.Ed. I also wish to thank Simon Difford for the infinite vault of knowledge that Difford’s Guide has shared for nearly two decades. I am nowhere near their level of expertise but I’m willing to educate myself on this journey just as I hope to share what I’ve learned over the years with the readers of this space.

Old Fashioned 101

The Old Fashioned has a storied history that dates back to the early 1800s and has gained a reputation of being a boozy bar favorite to an often misunderstood and frequently mishandled concoction. The drink’s profile will be different at times, dependent on how one makes it– even down to the spirit of choice. Per tradition, the old fashioned is a simple blend of bourbon or rye, sugar, and water on the rocks. However, there are variations that call for using tequila and mezcal which transform it into a smoky delight. Then, there are some who take daring approaches with grappa or rum.

To be frank, the best ways to enjoy this cocktail is either with rye or bourbon, with the former being far spicier than its slighter sweeter counterpart. We will revisit bourbon’s many layers in a later column, but for now, we’ll focus on the rye and bourbon versions of the classic.

By way of a May 1806 issue of The Balance and Columbian Respority, a newspaper that serviced Hudson, N.Y., most historians agree that it was there that the first time the word “cocktail” appears in print. The editor of the paper explained days later that a cocktail was a mix of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar. Louisville, Ky. named the drink the official cocktail of the city and claims it was invented there in 1881, and mention of the drink has been made earlier in the Chicago Daily Tribune, but it really isn’t known where the drink was founded.

Overall, the old fashioned serves the purpose of taking the bite off the strong flavors of bourbon and rye, mellowing the burn with its world-famous blend of flavors.  It isn’t a terribly difficult drink to make, but it’s one that is often crafted poorly, with some bartenders topping off a perfectly-fine drink with soda water or worse, adding a cherry as a garnish.

Let’s get to the good part, which is how best to make this classic. For this story, I used Wild Turkey 101 and Redemption Rye, respectively, but do not break the bank. You can try Jim Beam Black, Old Overholt Rye, Evan Williams Single Barrel, Four Roses Yellow Label, Bulleit Bourbon or Rye, and other bourbons in the mid-range class. When it comes to the simple syrup, I prefer to make rich simple syrup because it seems to blend better to me.

To make simple syrup the normal way, combine one part sugar and one part water until the boiling point, whisking until the sugar completely dissolves. Lower the heat and simmer for three minutes, then take off the heat to cool. To preserve the syrup, place a teaspoon of unflavored vodka into the container for your syrup and keep refrigerated.

Ice is an important thing for this drink as well. Creating clear ice is a cumbersome but worthy process, and you can find clear ice sphere and cube makers via online retailers. But in a bind, visiting a grocery or liquor store that sells spring water ice cubes would be your best bet. Cloudy ice is less dense and melts faster, watering down your cocktail.

The last part that’s important is the garnish. I don’t know why anyone would desecrate this drink with a cherry or orange slice. The best garnish is a two-inch orange (or lemon) peel expressed over the drink to bring out the oils, then toss it in the glass when done. The citrus aromatics will enhance the experience.

My personal recipe is as follows:

  • 2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey (can opt for 1.5 oz)
  • 1 teaspoon of simple syrup (use no less than 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 2-3 dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters (we’ll dig into other bitter styles later)
  • Orange or lemon peel for garnish

Combine spirits, syrup, and bitters in an old fashioned glass and stir for around 10-15 seconds. Add ice and stir until well chilled. Cut the orange peel along the length of the fruit, express oils from the skin by lightly squeezing and twisting, then add it to the glass. Now, you can enjoy your drink in style.

This isn’t a drink you down swiftly, it’s meant to be enjoyed slowly. The drink should change over the course of sipping. Some bartenders will combine brandy and bourbon for the spirit base, and others will chill the drink in a mixing glass with ice then pour it over an ice sphere or fresh ice to take more of the edge off. Get the basics right first then do some experimenting. We’ll come back at a later date to talk up variations of the old fashioned.

Until then, sip safely, friends.

Photo: D.L. Chandler