Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Old-Fashioned, by Robert Simonson

About a year ago, I had a brilliant idea. I'd write a book about the Old-Fashioned -- or rather, I'd write a chapter about the Old-Fashioned, then ask accomplished bartenders for their favorite recipes and whatever stories they might have about mixing them. (I decided on the Old-Fashioned because the Manhattan, my other favorite cocktail, seemed too well covered already, what with all the Manhattan Cocktail competitions and such.)

A couple of months after my brilliant idea -- during which, need I mention, I didn't do a thing about it -- I heard that Robert Simonson (@RobertOSimonson) had published a book called The Old-Fashioned. The book I was going to write was already written.

And as Archibald Mulliner said when he was told a chap named Bacon had written Shakespeare's plays for him, "Dashed decent of him." Writing's a lot of work, and I'm very glad Simonson put in the work that he did, because I learned a lot about what is, a lot of days, my favorite cocktail.

The Old-Fashioned is a bona fide cocktail, in the olde tyme sense of spirit + sugar + bitters + water. The problem is -- though frankly, if this is your problem, you're in pretty good shape -- bartenders can never leave well enough alone, and the book documents the ups and down of the cocktail as its complexity waxed and waned through the decades.

In the years after the Civil War, the mixologists (as, alas, they called themselves even then) has so gussied up the Whiskey Cocktail with absinthe and maraschino and who knows what all else, that purists had no other recourse than to order "an old-fashioned cocktail" without all the foofraw. Bartenders obliged. Bartenders began to speak of the "Old-Fashioned" as a cocktail. Bartenders began to gussie up the Old-Fashioned cocktail. Purists objected, and the cycle repeated itself, with the baseline Old-Fashioned a little fussier than it was before.

Complete news to me was the moderately fussy custom of the Old-Fashioned spoon:
Further placing the drink in the customer's hands was the small silver spoon that was traditionally popped into every Old-Fashioned. The tradition, completely forgotten today, is an odd one in retrospect. But from the late nineteenth century through the advent of Prohibition it was the norm... What were the spoons for? ..."a sensible man always uses the spoon to scrape out the deliciously flavored sugar which lingers in the bottom of the drained glass."
I was happy to read this, since I could never fathom how, if you start with a sugar cube, there could not be sugar lingering in the bottom of the drained glass. Of course, now I have to buy a couple of Old-Fashioned spoons. (More irritatingly, I also have to buy some gum arabic, since reading about Jerry Thomas's Whiskey Cocktail recipe sent me off to Google, where I found an article claiming the use of gum syrup makes for a distinctly different drink than you get with sugar or simple syrup.)

One evening while reading The Old-Fashioned, I tried the following old school recipe, which everyone agrees isn't an Old-Fashioned but sounded tasty ("Colonel" Gray was a barman who in 1907 claimed to have invented the Old-Fashioned at the Fifth Avenue Hotel bar in New York City in 1881):
Col. Jim Gray's Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

2 ounces bourbon or rye
1 sugar cube
Dash of nutmeg

Muddle the sugar cube, a barspoon of water, and a sprinkle of nutmeg in a mixing glass. Add the whiskey and ice. Attach tin to top of glass and shake the drink. Strain the drink into an Old-Fashioned glass. Dust with nutmeg. "And, for heavens sake," as the Colonel said, "no bitters."
This is a toddy, despite what the newspaper article recording the recipe says. Strained cold, it drinks sort of like a no-cholesterol eggnog. Not something I'll wait till next Christmas to revisit.

The book goes through as much history of the drink as is known, including the various other claimants of the first Old-Fashioned, the impact of Prohibition and womenfolk on the great Fruit Wars of the Middle Twentieth Century, and the cri de coeur of the purist heard through the decades to, for the love of God, just give him a proper drink.

Where are we nowadays? The Old-Fashioned (with or without the hyphen) is on every cocktail menu that is any cocktail menu. Some lean purist, some lean fruit cocktail. My own too limited sample is that, left to their own devices, bartenders in my neck of the woods are more likely than not to muddle fruit before adding spirit, but I'm sure I've been to places that don't.

I was talking about all this to my everloving (and everpatient) wife, who asked, "So who's right?" I said, "It depends which side you're on." If it were a matter of someone being right and someone being wrong, the argument wouldn't be any fun at all. Besides, bartenders (who can never leave well enough alone) have moved past the question of how to make a proper Old-Fashioned in order to fashion all sorts of improper Old-Fashioneds, and that's covered in The Old-Fashioned too.

With the help of photographs by Daniel Krieger, Simonson divides his book into 61 pages of "The Story" and 110 pages of "The Recipes." (Pretty close, coincidentally, to the Golden Ratio.) Included in the latter section are the Old School recipes printed before the end of Prohibition, plus the "standard variations" that you might expect to get in any decent bar. Oh, and there's the Wisconsin-style Brandy Old-Fashioned, which ...

But there's also 60 pages of "modern classics" by accomplished bartenders riffing on the basic formula. None of the bartenders are saying, "This is how to make an Old-Fashioned," they're saying, "This is how we make an Old-Fashioned here," and they make them with the whole Willie Wonka arsenal of spirits and bitters available today.

For quality control testing, I settled on the Old Bay Ridge, devised by David Wondrich. Here's the recipe as The Old-Fashioned records it:
Old Bay Ridge

1 1/2 ounces Rittenhouse Rye
1 1/2 ounces Linie aquavit
1 teaspoon Demerara syrup [2:1 sugar to water]
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon twist

Combine ingredients in Old-Fashioned glass over one large ice cube and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
I used Cask Proof Roundstone Rye from Catoctin Creek and turbinado sugar, which I assume are acceptable substitutes for home or battlefield conditions. The rye and caraway go well together, and balance nicely with the rick syrup. It's a sophisticated drink, which won't replace my unsophisticated house Old-Fashioned for weeknight use, but will probably help me work through the bottle of Linie Aquavit I bought at random several weeks back. And I may occasionally replace the crushed ice and cherry in my Old-Fashioned with one large piece of ice and a lemon twist.

I'd recommend Robert Simonson's The Old-Fashioned to anyone interested in the history of American cocktails, or interested in what -- after two hundred years of ups and downs, digressions, dead-ends, and Wisconsin -- great bartenders can do with some spirits, some bitters, some sweetener, and some water.

(This post was written based on a review copy I received from the publisher.)

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