Today’s post starts with a bit of cocktail history, as in my personal history with cocktails. I first started training to be a bartender when I was 19. I was hostessing at an old-school, Italian family owned seafood joint on the pier in Santa Cruz my sophomore year of college. The hostess stand was right next to the bar, so I ended up talking to the bartenders a lot. There was a bartender named Dave, who was the embodiment of the quintessential bartender: early 50’s, handsome yet a little grizzled, comforting and ready to listen, but didn’t take guff from anyone, could tell you the history of every drink he made while giving you solid life advice. At some point I realized that I wanted to be him when I grew up, and became obsessed with the idea of becoming a bartender. Since I wasn’t 21, technically I wasn’t allowed behind the bar, but Dave decided to take me under his wing. He gave me a couple of books to study at home, and started quizzing me every time an order came in. “What goes in a Singapore Sling, Sarah?” “What kind of garnish do you put on a Mai Tai?” “What’s the difference between a gimlet and a gibson?” He also gave me sage advice about love and encouraged my artistic pursuits. He was pretty much my favorite person at the time.
Fast forward a few years, and with a little fast talking and fudging of my resume, I landed a job bartending at a nightclub. The money was great, but the hours were terrible, and “bartending” really meant pouring beers, shots, and the occasional rum-and-coke. All I wanted in life was to mix fancy shaker drinks. I left that job to wait tables at a high-end restaurant, and after a few months I finally convinced the manager to let me behind the bar. This was the late 90s, the height of Sex and the City fame, so most of what I was making was specialty martinis: Cosmos, Manhattans, 007s, Appletinis. I became very adept with a cocktail shaker. One day, a gentleman came in to the bar and ordered an old-fashioned. I remembered seeing it in the bartender’s guide, but I had never actually made one. Luckily, I was working with another bartender that night, a veteran, but even she shot me a look like “Who orders an old-fashioned anyway?” This is how she made it: Put an orange slice, a maraschino cherry, a sugar cube (or one sugar packet) in a rocks glass, add 7 dashes of bitters, muddle all that together, add ice, and pour 2 oz bourbon over it.
And that’s the way I always made them. Granted, my last professional bartending gig was in 2004, pre-Mad Men, so I can count on one hand the number of old-fashioned cocktails I made in that time, but for some reason the recipe always stuck with me. Then along comes Don Draper and the resurgence of the “craft cocktail,” and suddenly every high-end bar has an old-fashioned on their specialty menu. And you know what? It turns out I’d been making them wrong all these years. Well not wrong, so much as the nouveau bastardized way, rather than the purist way. Apparently, the old-fashioned is somewhat of a controversial cocktail, especially amongst hipster bartenders and curmudgeonly old men who still wax poetic about the days when bread was 10 cents. In their eyes, a real old-fashioned is just sugar, bitters, and bourbon, and maybe an orange or lemon peel for garnish. The orange slice and cherry got added in sometime in the 70s/80s, when things started going from “less is more” to “more is more.” There’s an interesting Slate article written about the controversy, with some great recipes as well.
Maybe it’s because we’re a bourbon household, or maybe it’s because we watch a lot of Mad Men, but the old-fashioned makes a pretty regular appearance around here. Being a big fan of both experimentation and personalization, I’ve come up with my own old-fashioned recipe, and I’d encourage you to do the same. Here’s mine if you want to try it:
1 slice citrus (orange will make it sweeter, lemon will make it more tart, grapefruit and blood orange are fun too!)
1 sugar cube, sugar packet, or the equivalent amount of white sugar
7 dashes bitters
a few dashes of grenadine syrup (hard to measure, so I just use the cap)
1 1/2-2oz bourbon, depending on how strong you like it (use good bourbon…no cheap stuff!)
Muddle the citrus, sugar, bitters, and grenadine in a rocks glass. You can use a wooden spoon if you don’t have a muddler, but really, you should just get a muddler right? Add ice. I highly recommend getting an ice tray that makes those huge cocktail ice cubes. We got ours at Crate and Barrel. Pour bourbon over ice and stir with a spoon. I usually take out the citrus peel, but some people like to leave it in. Simply delicious. Happy mixing!