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Let me first preface this by saying that what I made is not an Old Fashioned. The Traditional Old Fashioned is simply sugar, water, aromatic bitters, and bourbon or rye whiskey usually served neat. Maybe a sliver of orange or lemon peel if you felt like looking classy for the dames. An Old Fashioned like that is a cocktail is the truest and most original sense of the word. However, a long time has passed since the Old Fashioned was invented and if we were obligated to do things the way they were done back then women wouldn’t be allowed to vote and we’d would still be referring to at least 12 different ailments as dropsy.
On to the good stuff. I have been a fan of the Old Fashioned for several years now, this includes both the aforementioned original recipe and the modern variations, which most often include muddled fruit. Some bartenders do an awesome job and some might as well be serving Sunkist topped with Kirkland Signature small batch bourbon (yes that’s a real thing.) But I decided that I didn’t want to depend on my local watering hole to get the perfect Old Fashioned and thus began my quest.
I had already been making modern Old Fashioneds in my spare time at home, using the standard recipe of water, sugar, angostura bitters, muddled slices of orange, a maraschino cherry, bourbon, and ice. These concoctions tasted just fine, but the ones made by my favorite bartenders still knocked these out of the park. (It should be noted that I have found excellent Old Fashioneds at Bourbon and Jack Rose, both in DC, Sidebar and Quarryhouse Tavern, both in Silver Spring MD, and Rye, Brewers Art, and Woodberry Kitchen, all of which can be found in Baltimore, MD.) Anyways, I thought to myself “why does mine seem boring compared to the pros?” I experimented a little with the ratios but had no luck, I ended up with either too sweet, too orangey, or hey I think theres something in my bourbon. It was at this point that I had a thought. What is the difference between a steak dinner at a TGI Fridays and a place like Ruth’s Chris? Sure the recipe is different but it really comes down to the ingredients. I did a couple day’s worth of research and finally I had an actual journey that involved actually going somewhere.
This part of the journey was the most obnoxious and obsessive. I first focused on the bourbon. Now I am a big bourbon drinker and I usually prefer it neat the way God/Buddha/Allah/Clapton/Carlin intended it, and every time I see a new bourbon I try it, so without trying to sound smug or self satisfied… I like to think I know a thing or two. I know it’s not enough to have bourbon, you have to have the right bourbon and I have made Old Fashioneds with everything from Evan Williams to Maker’s Mark, hitting stops like Four Roses, and Wild Turkey along the way. Some were great and some were awful but I have noticed that for bartenders the near universal preference is Bulleit. Bulleit is a good solid blended bourbon, not so good that you’ll feel bad about mixing it with other ingredients, but not so bad that it’ll call attention to itself in a negative way. Next up cherries, I decided I could do better than the average maraschino cherries so I went to my local Giant grocery store and found a jar of sweetened Bing cherries called Bada Bing, definitely clever and not corny at all. At the same Giant I also re-upped on Agostura bitters and got a bottle of orange peel bitters. Next was oranges, Giant doesn’t always have the best quality produce, so I purchased some organic oranges from Trader Joes. Another factor I’d been considering carefully was sugar. Was that old Domino granulated stuff doing the trick? In previous efforts I worried that the sweetness of the drink tasted specifically like white sugar so I did some research. I purchased a bag of pure cane Demerara sugar, known for possessing a slightly caramelly flavor, from the local Wegman’s. I bought extra large ice cube trays from Sur La Table so I could just put a single big block into my drink. Finally, if I went overboard at any point, this is where I did it. I purchased a bottle of Fiji artesan water because I was worried perhaps my Baltimore municipal sink water wasn’t bringing it’s A-game. I now had all of my ingredients. It was time for the main event.
I had all bases covered, I invited over both my dear friend Pat, who loves whiskey as much as I do, and my girlfriend Sydney, whom I love very much regardless of the fact that she shivers at the mere opening of a bottle of whiskey. Here was my process.
1. I poured Fiji water into the ice trays to freeze
2. To maximize mixing I made a rich simple syrup with the Demerara sugar and Fiji water at a ratio of 2:1. Thats the dark liquid to the left of the Fiji bottle.
3. I took rocks glasses and squirted in about 1.5-2 teaspoons of the simple syrup
4. I added in 2 dashes of the Angostura bitters and 1 dash of the orange peel bitters
5. Here is where I got creative. I added in a dash of cinnamon to give to end result a bit of a mulled quality, this makes it work well as both a summer and holiday drink. One person recommended in the past that I bypass this step by using Fireball instead of bourbon. At no point have I or will I ever be associated with that shitty, sugary Big Red in a bottle beyond being a begrudging recipient of a free shot. It is the Nickelback of whiskey and it has no place in my drinks.
6. Next I added in one Bing cherry and 2 eighth slices of orange and delicately muddled them.
7. I then added the one giant ice cube which made it look pretty awesome. The actual significance of this is that one single large ice cube will melt slower than multiple smaller ice cubes which will delay dilution of the cocktail.
8. Finally I added in 2 ounces of Bulleit and gently stirred it. Don’t shake whiskey, it causes an effect known as bruising which will make whiskey taste as though it’s been made with chalk.
The end result was a refreshing cocktail that I found to be delicious and fulfilling. It tasted like victory. I could drink multiple rounds of these in a single sitting and as it stands I’ve had at least one a day for the past three days since arriving at this recipe. If I had to guess I would say the biggest difference aside from the bourbon was the sugar, using a smaller amount of a better sweetener. It didn’t taste sugary, it was a fuller and more rounded yet more subtle sweetness. I’m pretty sure the water made little to no difference but I’m glad I tried it, now I will never wonder what if. Overall, from this experience I have learned three things
1. 1. I now make a damn good Old Fashioned.
2. 2. As the good doctor once said “Anything worth doing is worth doing right.”
3. 3. I have too much free time.