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The Old Fashioned Cocktail Gets a Make-Under

Despite the name, this drink is popular in the present.
Despite the name, this drink is popular in the present.
Photos by John Kiely

I am elated to be living in the golden age of adult beverages. I can easily find a dozen places in Houston that serve considerably better coffee, beer or cocktails than the drinks available to my parents and grandparents, or I can visit Patrick Storfer at the Spec's Liquors on Weslayan and get a stellar bottle of wine for a price that's not astronomical.

However, there's one cocktail that's not better than it used to be, and that's the appropriately named Old Fashioned. It was originally a simple drink, made of whiskey, sugar, Angostura bitters and ice, but over the years the cocktail has become new-fashioned with some add-ons that perhaps don't ruin the flavor but can detract from the cocktail's greatness.

Making the original drink is extremely easy and ritualistic. Simply place a teaspoon of white sugar, or a sugar cube, in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, dash in a few squirts from a bottle of Angostura bitters and add a splash of water or club soda to help dissolve the sugar as you stir. Then, pour in 1½ to 2 ounces of bourbon or rye whiskey, and drop in a few ice cubes. One taste, and you'll know why there's a resurgence in the popularity of the Old Fashioned.

Unfortunately, many modern recipes insist that you muddle an orange slice and a maraschino cherry with the sugar and bitters. It's not the worst thing you can do. In fact, one lover of the drink, engineer Ivan Battle, told me the fruit was the reason he became a bourbon aficionado. "I hated whiskey when I first drank it. But my dad made me an Old-Fashioned with the smashed-up cherry and orange slice. It tasted a little like whiskey fruit punch, but I got hooked. After a while, I stopped muddling the fruit, and eventually left it out altogether."

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Cherries and oranges are welcome at this party, but they're not honored guests.
Cherries and oranges are welcome at this party, but they're not honored guests.

The other modern addition makes no sense: adding club soda or seltzer to the drink. Yes, some water is needed to dissolve the sugar, and I'd strongly avoid any water that isn't purified (especially Houston tap), but if a bartender pours in an ounce or more from a soda gun, it will water down the drink and screw it up.

Fill 'er Up

It's obvious where this bad habit came from. A quality Old Fashioned glass can often hold as many as 12 ounces, whereas the actual drink is only 2 or 3 ounces in total. The cocktail is supposed to sit low in the glass, but to the untrained eye it looks like a rip-off.

The drink may look even smaller, if no ice is added, which is definitely an option. Personally, I prefer two large cubes, and I add a single unsmashed Mezzetta maraschino cherry as a garnish.

What Kind of Whiskey?

As far as whiskey choices go, the best Old Fashioned I've had was made with Woodford Reserve, ordered at Huntington Grill in the tiny town of Syracuse, Indiana. I won't tell you to use your favorite whiskey, because my house bourbon -- Buffalo Trace -- isn't impressive in this drink. Fantastic results at the home bar came from Bulleit 95 Rye and Evan Williams Black Label.

As opposed to "Don't try this at home," I recommend you try it with the Evan Williams Straight Kentucky Bourbon. It's one of the cheapest brand-name whiskeys around, and if you don't become a new fan of the Old Fashioned, it won't cost you much for your effort.


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