In Search of A Proper Old Fashioned

October 17th, 2009 § 0 comments § permalink

My good friend Pat and I have a longstanding disagreement, which bubbles to the surface every time we get together for cocktails. It concerns the correct way to make an Old Fashioned. I contend that an Old Fashioned should be merely sugar, water, bourbon, bitters, and some lemon peel, while Pat believes that an Old Fashioned should be bourbon, muddled fruit, bitters, and soda water.

Wikipedia refuses to take a side on the issue, saying:

Most modern recipes top off an Old Fashioned cocktail with soda water. Purists decry this practice, and insist that soda water is never permitted in a true Old Fashioned cocktail.

Many bartenders add fruit, typically an orange slice, and muddle it with the sugar before adding the whiskey…

My boss, Jane, knower of all things cocktail, shares my view that muddled fruit has no place in an Old Fashioned, which, frankly, was more than enough for me. Naturally, this was not enough to convince Pat, and so of course, there was only one way to settle the score for sure, which was to go and sample some Old Fashioneds at several bars across Manhattan. And so last night, that’s what we did, meandering our way across the downtown Manhattan, happily buzzed, stopping in at four establishments.

The rules of the contest:

  • Each participant chooses two bars
  • At least one person must order an Old Fashioned at each bar, without specifying a method of preparation to the bartender.
  • One point to be awarded to Guy for an Old Fashioned served without fruit
  • One point to be awarded to Pat for an Old Fashioned served with fruit

And so, the results:

Round One – Guy’s Choice
The Raines Law Room

48 West 17th Street

Named after legislation which forbade the selling of liquor on Sundays, except in hotels, drinking at The Raines Law Room feels like sipping cocktails in a living room. The bar is furnished with vintage velvet couches, and period pieces like a vintage gramophone. The cocktails are pretty outstanding. My colleague Chris joined us for the first round. I had one of their signature cocktails, the Suffering Bastard, involving Bulleit bourbon, Plymouth gin, lemon, sugar, and ginger, which was simultaneously strong, sweet, and spicy; generally kickass. Chris tried a Champs-Élysées, involving brandy and chartreuse, which was tasty but not really my type of drink. Pat was on Old Fashioned duty, and Raines scored one for me, bringing a simple mix of sugar, water, bourbon and bitters with a single giant cube of ice.

Score after Round One:
Guy 1, Pat 0

Round Two – Guy’s Choice
Little Branch

22 7th Avenue South

Little Branch remains one of my favourite bars in the city. They take their drinks seriously, it’s definitely got the speakeasy feel but the gimmick isn’t overplayed, and the atmosphere is always relaxed. Their bartenders are clearly experts at their craft, and to that end, will choose a drink on your behalf based on rough specifications you provide. Since Pat had never been here before, he took the “Bartenders Choice”, while I ordered up the Old Fashioned. Pat’s specs of a ‘rye-based, fruity’ drink landed him a tasty concoction with fresh squeezed juice and mint, while my Old Fashioned, appropriately, was devoid of both muddled fruit and soda water.

Score after Round Two:
Guy 2, Pat 0

Round Three – Pat’s Choice
Blue Owl

196 2nd Avenue

We strolled over to the East Village to visit Blue Owl, which is hidden just below street level on Second Avenue, underneath one of those shady-looking massage parlours with a video of someone getting a shiatsu on permaloop and about fifty neon signs. It was about nine o’clock when we arrived, and it was still fairly quiet, with just a handful of people at the bar. I had one of their house cocktails, the Jules Winnfield–bourbon, apricot liqueur, and fresh lemon and orange. I’m unsure what made whoever came up with the drink name it after the cinematic hitman with the best sideburns ever, but it was more or less a whisky sour made with fresh ingredients instead of bottled ones. Pat scored his first point of the evening with an Old Fashioned made with muddled lemon, orange, and, for some reason, dried sour cherries, which yielded a drink which tasted, in Pat’s words, “like a Jolly Rancher”.

Score after Round Three:
Guy 2, Pat 1

Round Four – Pat’s Choice
The Dove Parlour

228 Thompson Street

By the time we arrived at The Dove Parlour, it was past ten o’clock and the place was starting to become full. Somehow we managed to find two seats at the bar next to a greasy looking hipster sitting alone and knocking back beer. The house cocktail menu is short, and Pat ordered an Olympia, listed as “Bourbon, bitters, fresh lime juice and a splash of ginger soda”. The resulting greenish drink was incredibly tart, probably from being a bit too heavy on the lime juice. The bartender served me the final Old Fashioned of the evening with orange, cherry, lemon, and sugar, the product being syrupy enough that the sugar refused to dissolve at the bottom of the glass. Nonetheless, it evened up the score for Pat.

Final score after Round Four:
Guy 2, Pat 2

We briefly considered a tiebreaking round, but at four bourbon-based drinks apiece, we felt that a final, tied score was appropriate. Our adventure does seem to suggest that we could both be right — the modern interpretation of an Old Fashioned generally involves some sort of fruity garnish along with the bourbon. The classic version, on the other hand, sticks to the base ingredients. So, we’re back to where we started, I suppose, and Pat and I will just have to continue to regularly needle each other about our taste in cocktails, which I think I can handle, as long as there’s enough bourbon.

Rejoining the NYU Security Team, and visiting Little Branch

April 10th, 2008 § 3 comments § permalink

If you’ve spoken to me directly in the last week or two I’ve probably told you this already, but I’m excited to announce to the world that I’ll be rejoining the NYU Technology Security Services team full-time starting on April 15th. This is my post-graduation, real, full-time, proper, grown up job and I’m thrilled to sign there after an eighteen-month stint at NBC.

Naturally, in classic fashion there were some celebratory libations in the village with my new colleagues. We paid a visit to Little Branch, owned and operated by the creator of Milk and Honey, the hallowed, super-secret speakeasy that I’m, frankly, not nearly cool enough to have the unlisted number to, let alone actually attend. The bar is as a bar should be: smallish, dimly lit, clean, tidy, and specializing in precisely one thing: drinks. Little Branch prides itself on mixing drinks in the manner they were mixed at the time of their creation. Their menu is small, but the expertise of their staff spans decades of cocktail history, and a popular choice is to ask suggestions of the bartender or waiter, who will expertly guide your beverage choice based on your suggestion of liquor, flavor, and so on. Some noteworthy drinks from the table:

  • Gordon’s Cup: Mint and Cucumber muddled with Gin, with a pinch of salt and a dash of bitters. Outstanding
  • Vieux Carré: Rye, Cognac, Sweet Vermouth, Benedictine, and bitters. Rather like a Manhattan, but, well,better.
  • Little Italy: Can’t quite remember. (What can I say, it was the last round.) Most likely Bourbon, Vermouth, and Cynar. Bitter as hell, but very tasty

Many thanks go to Jane and Chris for doing the necessary reconnaissance work and introducing me to this fine establishment; I can’t wait to return.


March 8th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

No, it’s not Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel, it’s a new(-ish) burger joint on East 12th Street in New York. I paid Stand a visit with my coworkers this afternoon–shamefully late after working almost directly across the street since long before its opening in December. The owner, Jonathan Morr, is the man behind Republic, the communal-table pan-Asian noodle house in Union Square. Stand feels about the same, with similar décor and seating, except, well, with burgers, shakes and fries instead of Pad Thai and Udon. The menu is even constructed in about the same way, with a few core ingredients served in marginally different combinations. In fact, the difference between the Cheeseburger and Classic Burger with Cheese is that one comes with lettuce and is a dollar extra.

I opted for the Classic Burger ($9), which arrived medium-rare, very juicy, with peppercorn mayonnaise, pickles, and homemade tomato sauce of some sort. A nine-dollar hamburger, you ask? Well, yeah, but this was a serious burger. The sort of burger that takes your fast-food impostor, and rocks its face off.  It had clearly been prepared with care, tasting genuinely char-broiled, retaining the natural juices from the cooking process. If I had any complaint, it was perhaps a bit too juicy, making eating it somewhat on the messy side.

I washed it down with a glass of Blue Point Toasted Lager, one of the several draft beers Stand has available. The other beverages available range from what appears to be the ultimate milkshake made with Il Labatorio del Gelato ice-cream, to various fruity cocktails.
So, if you’re in the Village with ten bucks to spend on lunch, give Stand a shot. A different take on the American staple, to be sure, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

(n.b. Foodite has a much more detailed and eloquent review here)

Ninth Street Espresso

February 18th, 2007 § 0 comments § permalink

Having not a whole lot else to do on this three-day weekend, I visited another coffee shop on my places-to-visit. This time I went to Ninth Street Espresso, which bills itself as “New York’s Espresso Purists Since 2001″. It’s hard to grasp how seriously they take this concept until you actually show up. Their menu has the following items:

  • Espresso
  • Cappuccino
  • Mezzo
  • Macchiato
  • Breve
  • Latte
  • Mocha
  • French Press Coffee

And that’s it. There are no sizes: a drink’s a drink. There’s a very small selection of pastries, but I was there for the coffee, so I didn’t really investigate the food on offer.

They have two locations: the original at 9th St and Ave C, and a small satellite on 13th St between 3rd and 4th Aves. I made the trek out the original outpost at Ave C, despite the total lack of transportation options to get there.

The place itself is very simple. About ten tables, a bar, the menu, and an espresso machine. It was crowded, but I managed to shoehorn myself in at the end of a table, and get enough room to set up my laptop and do some reading.

The coffee itself is, in a word, amazing. The latté I drank this afternoon was, without doubt, the best I’ve ever had. It was creamy, frothy, and smooth. It makes the average Starbucks brew seem like sulfuric acid. Perhaps it says something that the of the few things hanging on the wall at Ninth St Espresso, two of them are posters of “The Coffee Taster’s Color Wheel” and “The Arabica Bean Classification Chart”. These guys take their stuff seriously.

There’s no free WiFi, but they do have a stack of New York Times available for patrons. There is, however, paid internet access available if you particularly need it.

The bottom line: Ninth Street does exactly one thing, and it does it very, very well: it makes fantastic espresso, and gives you a spot to sit in while you drink it. If you’re in the region, you really ought to go.


February 17th, 2007 § 2 comments § permalink

Per my list-of-coffee-shops-to-try, I paid a visit this afternoon to Gramstand. It’s really a teahouse, although they do serve coffee, too (under the moniker “Darn Good Coffee”). I tried the traditional black tea, since I’ve been drinking it since the age of about seven. It seemed pretty legitimate, though it was, perhaps a bit weak. But when your base of reference is Marks and Spencer’s Extra Strong, it might skew your judgement. I didn’t see any milk available for use in the tea, either, so I drank it straight black, which made it a bit more potable.

The rest of the beverage menu is quite extensive, and divided into two: the “Ancient Brews” section, which is comprised of more traditional teas like black, Earl Grey, and so on. The other half is “Modern Brews” which tends to the more exotic, with the sort of stuff that, frankly, I tend to avoid like “hibiscus” and “rose”. Whether the second half of the menu actually has any real tea leaves in it remains to be seen, but I’d be prepared to give one of the drinks a shot just to say I have.

The café itself is very well designed, with clean white lines and modern furniture, rather zen-like, actually. A good selection of music on the stereo, comfortable chairs, and a generally chill atmosphere made it, I think, a fine choice for a Saturday afternoon. I’d imagine it would be unpleasantly crowded, though, if there were more than about 30 people in the café.

The clientèle were mostly young, I’d say in their twenties and early thirties, but beyond that, didn’t seem to match any particular demographic, as one tends to expect on the Lower East Side.
Perhaps my only complaint is the price of the drinks. A cup of black tea ran me nearly four bucks. I’m not really accustomed to drinking tea anywhere other than my own apartment (since most places offer some sort of pseudo-tea that I’d take the worst cup of sludgy coffee over any day), so I’m not really sure what the going rate for a cup is. Gramstand lacks the extensive menu of somewhere like 71 Irving Place, but it makes up for it in being a cool, chill place to relax for a couple of hours.

Oh, and did I mention the free WiFi? I didn’t take advantage of it myself, but that in itself might bring me back.

Avenue A between 13th and 14th St.

Open until “Rather Late”