Knockin’ Them Back the Old-Fashioned Way

April 30, 2012

I’ve been drinking quite a few Old-Fashioneds the last couple of months, especially when the weather’s cold and wet, I’m home very late and want something I can fix quite easily.

I mentioned in an earlier post how the Old-Fashioned is really the oldest surviving ‘cocktail’ in the true sense of the word, in that it consists of spirits, water, bitters and sugar. That’s what ‘cocktail’ used to mean, and after it started getting ‘fancied up’ and ‘improved’ with liqueurs and the like, some folks started asking for their cocktails the ‘old-fashioned’ way, and the drink has survived like that until today.

Well, mostly like that. An interesting thing about this drink is that I gather it is making something of a resurgence thanks to the fact that the Old-Fashioned is the favorite drink of Don Draper on Mad Men. Although I’ve only seen a few episodes of Man Men, and that was quite some time ago, I can see how the show might have sparked an interest in classic cocktails for some people (hell, I got interested in them from seeing Sam drinking Mojitos on Burn Notice). Be like the savvy, suave, masculine men of Mad Men and get yourself an Old-Fashioned. And make it the way Don Draper takes it.

No, please, don’t have it the way Don Draper takes it.

There’s two problems – the fruit and the whiskey.

The 50s and 60s weren’t really a highpoint of cocktail culture. James Bond, lounge culture, and, well, Mad Men aside, cocktails and the love of hard spirits (particularly dark, aged spirits) was actually in decline. Ted Haigh argues that Prohibition had seriously hurt supplies of aged whiskey, the Depression and war rationing didn’t let things get back to speed, and liquor companies turned to a new spirit to fill the gap – Vodka. To sell the stuff, they had to dress it up with all sorts of flavours (it doesn’t taste like much without) and people got used to sweet flavoured long drinks in weaker mixes and turned their backs on strong cocktails and spirits with stronger tastes.

The Old-Fashioned survived, but it fell victim to the trend. Blended whiskies were used instead of high-proof Bourbon and rye whiskey. These have smaller amounts of aged whiskey and large amounts of neutral grain alcohol, making them faster and cheaper to produce. So Don Draper prefers Canadian Club in his Old-Fashioneds.

And then there’s the fruit. The traditional thing was to use a twist or segment of orange or lemon peel. It could be muddled with the sugar and bitters, just added to the drink, or just twisted over. That was it. Only the peel, without pith, for accent. There might have been a cherry for decoration. By the time Don Draper gets his lips on the drink there’s whole wedges of orange, cherries (or those terrible sweet imitations) and sometimes even pineapple being mashed into a fruity paste with the drink. Oh, and the whole thing is being topped up with soda to further weaken it. It’s closer to a tropical tiki drink than a classic cocktail. Apparently, when the Trumans moved into the White House and the First Lady was served one by their house bartender, she said “We drink Old-Fashioneds, not fruit punch.”

Enough history, and on to the drink. I’ve been trying a few variations, but (once I got the proportions just right) my first try is still my favourite. It’s the basic recipe, with Rye Whisky rather than Bourbon, a drink that was more popular in the 19th century, but is making something of a resurgence these days. Not that there is anything wrong with Bourbon. It’s perfectly normal in an Old-Fashioned, but (with the caveat that I’ve yet to try it myself) all the gurus seem to say that Canadian whiskey (confusingly also referred to as ‘rye’ sometimes) is definitely out. Sorry, Don.

The Rye Old Fashioned

2 oz rye (or bourbon) whiskey

1/2 sugar cube

1/2 tsp water

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

1 large piece of citrus rind (lemon for rye, orange for bourbon)

Place the sugar cube in an Old Fashioned glass, and saturate with bitters and water. Muddle to dissolve the sugar. Muddle in a large piece of citrus rind (1 inch by 2 with pith removed is good). Add whiskey and one to three ice cubes (depending on size). Stir gently. Remove old rind and garnish with a fresh piece if you want to get really fancy.

I used my Rittenhouse Bonded (50%) Rye Whiskey, and it works great. I started with 1 largish sugar cube, but found that a half works much better. I usually go for three dashes of the bitters too, but that might not be to everybody’s taste.

The Bourbon Old-Fashioned

Make this just the same as the Rye one but with the different whiskey and orange instead of lemon.

I got some Maker’s Mark for my first Bourbon, after reading very good reports and being enchanted by the bottle. It might not have been the best choice for me, though. I loved the Rye Whiskey. US Rye is made from a mash that contains at least 50% rye, but also other grains. Bourbon is made from a mash containing at least 50% corn, and usually wheat and rye as well. Maker’s Mark is unusual in that it contains NO Rye. This makes it a much smoother product, and I can respect it as such. It’s just not the extreme that I like. Maybe in other drinks. I have found a rescue attempt, though. More on that later. First …

Mucking Around With Ice

Ice is so important in a cocktail. With the first drink I really got into, the Mojito, I discovered the joys of crushed ice, and now apply it to gin and tonics and many more. It makes a drink really cold, makes it long, without much mixer, and leaves very little space to over-dilute the drink with too much soda. Martinis and many more cocktails, on the other hand, want no dilution so they need to be stirred or shaken with ice then served in a martini glass without, in small portions, do be drunk rather quickly (stemmed glass, so the had doesn’t warm the drink).

The right ice is important and really changes a drink.

And Old-Fashioned is supposed to have only 2-3 LARGE (and very cold) ice cubes, so that they only melt slowly and don’t dilute the drink, but still keep it nice and cold. In the old days, they’d chip large chunks off their blocks of ice. In some places (Japan, apparently, for one) skilled bartenders carve large balls to neatly fit in the glass. So use large cubes from a large mold.

I was lucky enough to spot a tray for making big spheres of ice in a dollar shop. The picture above shows the results. It makes for a much more ‘correct’ Old-Fashioned, but I’m going to go against everything I’ve just said to say that I’ve reverted to 4 or 5 large cubes. I just like the sound and feel of them clinking together. The emotional appeal of a drink also changes the taste, you know? (Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it).

Messing About With Bitters

Angostura Bitters are the choice of bitters in an Old-Fashioned these days, and they’re a mighty fine choice, but they’re definitely a negotiable one.

I’ve been buying a few different kinds of bitters recently and experimented with a few:

Peychaud’s – didn’t do anything for me.

Orange – pretty nice, better in a Manhattan, though.

Rhubarb – nup.

Fees Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters (Batch 4) – Jackpot!!!

This is a fabulous bitters. I love my Rye, but it’s almost gone, and I can’t buy it in Taiwan, so I’ve been drinking Bourbon. Fees Brothers come to the rescue. These bitters add the spice, pepperiness and character to my Old-Fashioned that I’ve been missing. If you’re a fan of the drink, I strongly suggest that you find these bitters and give them a go in your Old-Fashioned. Fees make one batch a year, they’re all a little different, and when they sell out, you need to wait until the next year. So buy one when you see it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if you’re in Taipei, you can get these at Breeze.

The Genever Old-Fashioned

The Old-Fashioned started out as not just a Whiskey drink. Brandy and gin were the other choices. In those days, gin, meant Dutch Gin, aka, Genever. I have a nice bottle of Bokme Oude Genever, so I tried that in an Old Fashioned (same recipe).

I love that Genever. It’s like the Rye version of gin. Spicy, earthy, whiskey-ey and with that juniper bite of gin. Great drink.

The Elder-Fashioned

2 oz Bourbon

1/2 oz St Germain Elderflower Liqueur

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

St Germain is heavenly nectar, from bottle to  smell to sip and beyond. I got a bottle in New Zealand (sadly, none available in Taiwan). If I had an endless supply, and the budget to match I’d be sipping on this stuff straight with tonic all summer, but it also mixes tremendously well. In the Elderfashioned it replaces sugar as the sweetener. I’ve seen recipes with Scotch and even with Gin, but the recipe on St Germain’s own website calls for Bourbon, and here’s their instructions, word for word:

Stir ingredients in an old fashioned glass, add ice and stir again as if you are a revolutionary. Add an orange twist and think progressively as you sip this new twist on a classic. Vive La Résistance!

I tried it with Bourbon and Rye, and in this case the Bourbon makes a much better drink. Don’t think that such a delightful floral addition will turn this drink all soft and flowery, though. Really nice, drink.

There’s a few other common Old-Fashioned variations, with peaches, honey and even, disgustingly, bacon (there seems to be a trend of bacon infusion in cocktails – I’m all for inventiveness, but this is one travesty I can not condone), but I just tried one more:

The Wisconsin Brandy Old-Fashioned

Apparently, in Wisconsin, the Old-Fashioned continued to be widely popular, in its brandy form, and with all the fruit and soda. I decided to give it a go.

It just happens that veteran cocktail blogger Jeffrey Morgenthaler posted about this drink only this month. Here’s his recipe:

1 sugar cube or 1 tsp 2:1 simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 orange wedge
1 cherry, preferably Amarena or Maraska
2 oz brandy or Cognac

In a chilled old fashioned glass, muddle the sugar, bitters, orange wedge and cherry into a thick paste, careful not to work the orange peel. Add brandy or Cognac, stir, and fill glass with crushed ice and serve.

He eschews the soda or 7-up usually taken in Wisconsin for crushed ice. A very sound idea, but I couldn’t help splashing just the tiniest bit of soda on top. And that ice looked a little colourless, so I dashed a few extra drops of bitters on it. Oh and I didn’t have any real cherries and wasn’t going to throw in one of those horrible fake things.

So it’s not really all that fruity after all. Just a little orange juice, really. I wouldn’t want that with the whiskey, but orange goes very nicely with brandy (Courvoisier Exclusif VSOP in my case) and this was a nice drink.


You can do better than Don Draper! The Old-Fashioned is a great drink in its pure form, with room for personal preferences, mine being Rye. What’s yours?

Edit: It’s a few days later, and I’m sipping a Maker’s Mark Bourbon Old Fashioned with 2 or 3 generous dashes of Bitter Truth Orange Bitters. I think I was too harsh on the Maker’s. I’m really liking it with the orange bitters. This is well-rounded and delicious.


17 Responses to “Knockin’ Them Back the Old-Fashioned Way”

  1. Nice write up and some interesting twists. Thanks for the link!

  2. theboolion Says:

    Thanks, Mark. You’re welcome 🙂

  3. benedictchapman Says:

    Hey Brian. I’ve been drinking Rittenhouse old fashioned of late too. I’ve also been drinking Rittenhouse Manhattens. I’m still getting used to rye, but it is growing on me. When I first got my bottle of Rittenhouse I poured myself a tiny nip and found it almost undrinkable. But iced or diluted in other ways it is good.

    I started out with Maker’s Mark for my old fashioneds (though with twice as much sugar as yours) and was blown away at what a great drink an old fashioned is and what good things it does to a whisky. However, I’m now less interested in Maker’s Mark drunk this way. It feels a bit too vibrant. An old fashioned needs to be a bit more serious.

    I discovered an excellent bourbon by the fortune of finding it cheap on a whiskey discounting website. It is called Knob Creek. It is a fabulous whiskey. However, I have since discovered that at full price it costs twice as much as Maker’s Mark. But Knob Creek makes an outstanding old fashioned.

  4. benedictchapman Says:

    I read about Don Draper muddling fruit in his old fashioneds as well. Such a shame. He has such good taste otherwise.

    However, his choice of Canadian Club is not as poor as you make out. I don’t think Canadian Club is a blended whiskey. Canadian Club distil and age their own spirit. And since Canadian whiskey typically contains a good proportion of rye, it might actually be something you like.

    I’m not an expert on Canadian whiskey, having never actually drunk any, but Wondrich, who is an expert, recommends Canadian Club.

  5. theboolion Says:

    Nice to hear from you again, Ben. About the Knob Creek. Coincidentally, I saw it for the first time on Saturday and it looked nice.

    Not TOO expensive here, about one and a third the price of the Maker’s Mark. It’s ‘small batch’ and it’s 50% abv. Sounds good, I reckon I’ll give it a try when my Maker’s runs out, if not before (such a big wish list though).

    Whatever the Bourbon, do try the Whiskey Barrel Aged bitters if you get a chance.

    About the Canadian Club. I admit to being a little confused and too rushed to check thoroughly. That’s why I think I avoided directly saying it was blended, for sure. I thought it was until i saw that same Wondrich article as you. Then today I read Haigh recommending against using Canadian for Rye (not mentioning club by name), saying typical blended whiskey is 87% neutral grain alcohol so ‘high rye’ means the 13% is high. So not high at all. I’ll have to investigate.

    • benedictchapman Says:

      Does Canadian Club have any profile in Taiwan? In New Zealand there have been a series of billboard ads about Canadian Club being the drink your dad drank. They now seem to be selling a line of ready mixed drinks, or at least C.C. and ginger ale. I wonder if they are looking to appeal to a young hipster crowd.

      Anyway, enough about Canadian whiskey.

      • theboolion Says:

        I don’t know. I haven’t seen any advertising for it, but I don’t see much advertising. There’s a lot of Candians though, so ‘foreigner bars’ seem to usually have it, to keep the Canucks happy.

  6. theboolion Says:

    After a bit of checking, Canadian Club is definitely blended. Even on their own website they say that ALL there whiskies are blended. This doesn’t mean it’s a ‘bad’ whiskey,of course. here’s what Ted Haigh said in Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails (which I got last week 🙂 ):

    “Some recipes erroneously call for Canadian whisky instead of rye, probably because blended Canadian whisky often contained a higher percentage of rye to, say, uranium. (For those of you who aren’t whiskey aficionados yet, most blended “whiskey” contains about 87 percent grain-neutral spirits—basically grain alcohol—to 13 percent whiskey, which is divided into corn and rye or wheat components. Therefore, calling a Canadian blend “rye” because it contains more rye probably means it contains, say, 8 percent rye instead of 5 percent—not very compelling!) With good ryes once again on the market, using a blend is particularly misguided.”

    Wondrich says Canadian Club is a good idea IF you can’t get rye, and it seems that the better Canadian whiskies do aim for a similar porfile to rye even if they don’t contain any actual rye in their mash (as many don’t) so yes, I guess it could be a got substitute if rye isn’t available.

    • benedictchapman Says:

      I think the problem with Canadian whiskey is that unlike Scotch and bourbon, there isn’t any mandated quantities. I have read comments along the line of “whatever is in Canadian whiskey these days.”

  7. putneyfarm Says:

    Great post. I wanted to try the Fee’s bitters- now will go get them.

    Also love genever and will try this version.

  8. Seamus Says:

    Canadian Club is pretty uninspiring in my book. Crown Royal (their higher end product) is kind of OK but still hardly seems worth the bother.

    Four Roses is worth a try if you want a cheaper bourbon that’s still decent. It is a huge seller in Japan so must be floating around in Taiwan.

    Another two good Bourbons like that might be available in Taiwan are Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. Can’t go wrong with those. In the US they are priced quite reasonably, but no doubt in Taiwan they’d be a bit expensive. In China Woodford Reserve is just a rip off. Fortunately it is one of those things you often find in duty free.

    Highly recommend Woodford Reserve if you see it. It makes a great Old Fashioned.

    • theboolion Says:

      And we’ve just about covered all Bourbons available in Taiwan – the Maker’s Mark I mentioned, the Knob Creek Ben recommended, and I have also seen Four Roses (not the single barrel, unfortunately), Buffalo Trace, and Woodford Reserve. The only others are Jim Beam and Wild Turkey, I think.

      One thing you might be wrong about though, is the price. When in NZ, I noticed that top shelf bottles are often cheaper in Taiwan – less tax. That’s even in expensive import supermarkets. All those Bourbons above cost about 800NT-1200NT, I think, so about $US25-40. Only a little more than prices in the States, I believe, and probably cheaper than NZ.

      Yesterday, i thought Knob Creek should be my next Bourbon, now I’m unsure again 🙂

      • Anonymous Says:

        I’d say Knob Creek… it’s a bit cheaper than Woodford and as good or better. Also, you might be able to find the other Jim Beam “small batch” bourbon’s around Taipei. I got a bottle of Booker’s single barrel (60+%), which is excellent, and I’ve seen Baker’s but not Basil Hayden’s around.

  9. benedictchapman Says:

    One thing I really like about an old fashioned is the time it takes to make. It can take a few minutes to dissolve the sugar cube in water and bitters. I then typically add half an ounce of whiskey and then stir a bit more. The top it up and clink the ice in. It is a little ritual that starts with the notion “I’d like a drink, what should I have?” The whole process is deliberate and thoughtful.

  10. theboolion Says:

    Anon, where did you see the Booker’s? Do you mean in Taipei? I’ve only seen it once, at Mega-City and it was just a mini bottle. They didn’t have an actual bottle. Any leads on good Taipei booze suppliers are much appreciated.

    • Tiger Mountaineer (Anon) Says:

      I actually saw it at 八條酒庫 just the other day, which is mentioned in the bourbon thread on Forumosa. I think they have all the small batch line, but they’re more of a wholesaler, as you probably know, and they keep their bourbons in the back so I didn’t pester them to look up too many in the computer. The Booker’s (740ml in wooden crate) was 2300?ish NT though (ouch). However, Knob Creek is only seven fiddy there, which is a steal as I’ve seen it around town for as high as 1200.

      The other (unrelated) spirit I chanced to taste there was the 12yr Bunnahabhain 46% non-chill-filtered version ($1000). Really smooth, creamy, yet still peaty. Too bad winter is over.

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