In Search of A Proper Old Fashioned

October 17th, 2009 § 0 comments

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.

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