Tag Archives: old fashioned

A Good Old-Fashioned Controversy

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.

This old fashioned is so pure, they won't even let the orange peel touch the bourbon.

This old-fashioned is so pure, they won’t even let the orange peel touch the bourbon.

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!)

Those rocks glasses were a favor from a friend's wedding last year. Adorable and functional!

Those rocks glasses were a favor from a friend’s wedding last year. Adorable and functional!

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!

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Cocktail Hour at Home

My bourbon infusion was ready to go, so I decided to invite my lovely friend Brynn over for dinner and cocktails. Before we get into the drink recipes, let’s talk about the infusion by itself. How much do I love grapefruit? So much that I would write an ode to it, if I were any good at writing odes. The substitution of grapefruit zest for lemon and orange was a stroke of pure genius. The citrus did kind of overwhelm the vanilla, though, which was barely detectable. Next time I’d go with two vanilla beans instead of one. Still, it was quite nice, and could easily be a stand alone drink, chilled and served up. But where’s the fun in that?

No, my friends, the fun is all in the mixing, so on we go to the cocktails. The first concoction is something I’ve been making in various configurations for a while now, so it deserves a name. I hereby dub thee “The Savage Refresher.” Doesn’t that sound like something you want to drink?

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It consists of: bourbon (this time I used the infusion, but it’s also delicious with regular bourbon), muddled mint, bitters, and freshly squeezed grapefruit. You can add a little sugar or simple syrup if you like your drinks on the sweet side of tart. Muddle a handful of mint, sugar (if you want), 10ish drops of bitters, and a little ice in a shaker. Add 2 oz of bourbon (depending on how strong you like it), half a grapefruit (squeezed), and some more ice. Shake and serve up in a cocktail glass of your choosing.

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I squeeze the grapefruit by hand, but what I really want is a dedicated grapefruit squeezer like this one. Also, despite our arsenal of bar tools, we still don’t have a muddler at home, which makes me sad. Now you know what to get me for my birthday, right?

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The Savage Refreshers went perfectly with our dinner…I threw some mint in the salad too. Yummy!

Then it was on to post dinner conversation and round two. If you’re as obsessed with Mad Men as I am, you’ve probably had a hankering for an Old Fashioned sometime in the last few months. If you’re a purist, like Don Draper, here is a recipe for the classic Old Fashioned, complements of Esquire magazine. Most bars these days make it with and orange slice and a maraschino cherry, but apparently that’s a recent edition. Fascinating!

Seeing as how I’m all grapefruit obsessed at the moment, I use a grapefruit slice instead of the now-traditional orange slice, a smidge of grenadine, and regular sugar, because really, who has sugar cubes and maraschino cherries at home?

How to make a Grapefruit Old Fashioned: In a cocktail shaker, muddle a large slice of grapefruit, a teaspoon-ish of sugar, a dash or two of grenadine (one cherry’s worth if you can figure that out), and 3-4 dashes of bitters. Once that has been muddled, you add 2 oz or so of bourbon and shake. I like to top it off with another squeeze of grapefruit, but that’s just me. Traditionally, you’d serve this in a rocks glass over ice. What can I say, I’ve never been all that traditional.

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The photo may not look all that impressive, but trust me, they’re delicious. This cocktail makes a frequent appearance in our house. Typically while we’re watching Mad Men. In our fedoras.

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