5@5 - The enduring appeal of the Old-Fashioned
June 3rd, 2014
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Editor's note: Robert O. Simonson is the author of "The Old Fashioned" and he writes about cocktails, spirits and bar culture for The New York Times as well as GQ, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Imbibe, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, and Time Out New York.

The thing to keep in mind about the Old-Fashioned - and the reason this drink keeps people fascinated, satisfied and frequently argumentative - is that it’s not just a great cocktail but that it’s also the cocktail. That is, it follows to the letter the blueprint for a category of drink - spirit, bitters, water, sugar - that was established more than two centuries ago.

That recipe structure, while as sturdy as steel, also happens to be endlessly welcoming of interpretation, embracing spirits well beyond the de rigueur whiskey. In fact, for a short period of time in the late-19th-century and early 20th century, a number of old cocktail books treated the Old-Fashioned not as a single drink, but as a branch of cocktails. (Gin Old-Fashioned, Brandy Old-Fashioned, etc.)

Today’s mixologists approach the drink with much the same mix of reverence and imagination, perfecting their ultimate expression of the classic drink with one hand, while messing around with the model with the other. The profit of this twin-minded attitude is that many of today’s cocktail menus include a classic Old-Fashioned for the purists and, for the curious, an in-house version that switches out the base spirit, the sweetener, the bitters and sometimes all three.

So, it you ever find yourself growing tired of the same old Bourbon or Rye Old-Fashioned (why this would happen, we can’t fathom), there are options. Try giving one of these differently spiritous iterations a spin.

5 Old-Fashioned variations for every spirit: Robert O. Simonson

1. Rum
Aged rum is so rich in character, such a balance of mellowness and pungency, that it works nearly as well as bourbon or rye within the Old-Fashioned format. The ridiculously rich Guatemalan rum Zacapa works well, but is perhaps so sweet that it eliminates the need of a sugar component. Less sugary, and a better choice, is the El Dorado 5-year-old from Guyana. This recipe comes from St. John Frizell, the owner of Red Hook’s Fort Defiance, who likes English Harbour 5-year-old.

Rum Old-Fashioned

2 ounces English Harbour 5-year-old
1 barspoon Clement cane syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lime twist

Mix the syrup and bitters at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass and add the rum. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lime zest over the drink and drop it into the glass.

2. Gin
A Gin Old-Fashioned seems an odd notion, but you can find recipes for them in a number of pre-Prohibition cocktail books. Chances are, those formulas were using sweeter Old Tom gin or malty Dutch Genever. And that is definitely a good way to go. Strictly speaking, this is what they used to call an Improved Gin Cocktail. Those improvements included dashes of maraschino liqueur, curacao and absinthe. When 1870s bartenders started spurting those spirits into whiskey cocktails, old-school drinkers balked. (Hence, loud calls for an “Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail”). But those European elixirs actually do improve a gin cocktail.

Genever Old-Fashioned

2 ounces Bols barrel-aged genever
1 sugar cube
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Absinthe
2 dashes Maraschino Liqueur
2 dashes Curacao
Lemon twist

Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, absinthe, maraschino liqueur, curacao and a barspoon of warm water at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass until the sugar is dissolved. Add the genever. Stir. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.

3. Tequila
Unlike rum and gin, you won’t find any recipes for Tequila Old-Fashioneds in pre-Volstead-Act cocktail literature, because Americans didn’t drink the stuff back then. (Most didn’t even know about it.) But they do now. In 2007, Phil Ward, then at Death & Co., and armed with an East Coast, classics-oriented approach, took the south-of-the-border elixir and applied it to an old cocktail, creating the mezcal-laced Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. Since then, tequila Old-Fashioned riffs have become ubiquitous. But Ward’s is still the best.

Oaxaca Old-Fashioned

1 1/2 ounces El Tesoro reposado tequila
1/2 ounce Del Maguey single village mezcal (Chichicapa or San Luis del Rio)
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 barspoon agave nectar
Orange zest

Combine all the ingredients except the orange twist in an Old-Fashioned glass filled with one large ice cube. Stir until chilled. Top with a flame orange twist: hold a piece orange peel about the size of a silver dollar, skin side down, over the drink. Light a match and use it to warm the skin side of the peel. Holding the match a few inches above the drink, quickly squeeze the peel in the direction of the match. The oil from the peel will briefly erupt into flame, showering its essence over the drink’s surface.

4. Scotch

Scotch is a little too much of an Type-A-personality spirit to work and play well as a cocktail’s base spirit. But it can function in an Old-Fashioned, if you choose your brand carefully. Joaquin Simo’s Young Laddie - another Death & Co. creation - is a combo that works, largely owing to the selection of a no-to-smoky Islay Scotch and a double grapefruit assist.

Young Laddie

2 ounces Bruichladdich “Rocks” Scotch whisky, or another single-malt Scotch that is not too smoky in character
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
1 dash Bittermans hopped grapefruit bitters
Orange twist
Grapefruit twist

Combine all the ingredients except the twists in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a wide piece of orange zest and a wide piece of grapefruit zest over the drink and drop into the glass.

5. Applejack
Every time I have an Applejack Old-Fashioned—and that’s not as often as I should—I say to myself, “Why don’t I drink these all the time?” Laird’s Bonded works wonderfully within the Old-Fashioned’s strict outlines. And why shouldn’t it? Old American spirit, old American cocktail. They’re meant for each other.

Applejack Old-Fashioned

2 ounces Laird’s bonded applejack
1 bar spoon Grade B maple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Orange twist

Mix the syrup and bitters at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass. Add the applejack. Stir. Add one chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest over the drink and drop into the glass.

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Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Booze Books • Cocktail Recipes • Sip • Spirits • Think

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Thinking things through

    Enquiring minds just want to know: in the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned recipe, how much volume is a "barspoon"? Not that I'm planning on making this immediately, but simply rampant curiousity?

    The Scotch one sounds good.

    June 5, 2014 at 8:04 am |
  2. mudfoot

    It's hard to find a bartender that can make a decent old fashioned.

    June 4, 2014 at 6:26 pm |
    • ThatGuyOverThere

      I've only found 1 guy who can make a great Old Fashioned. He goes the whole 9 yards, REAL maraschino cherries, a little orange zest on the rim, and he light's a squirt of the orange oil. I can sort of remember the times I've stopped by there for a drink or 3. Of course I live near Dayton Ohio so my choices are slim to begin with.

      June 5, 2014 at 9:18 am |
  3. William

    As a tea party person, i can say you are not far from the mark but everclear gives brutal hangovers. Try some good corn 'licker sourced from your local provider.

    June 4, 2014 at 5:21 pm |
  4. Shannon

    Love this post! I would love for 5@5 to chase down Chef and Restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach – she has a thing or two to share about the enduring pleasures of tequila in the summer!

    June 4, 2014 at 4:34 pm |
  5. AleeD®

    The Young Laddie sounds just right – on many levels. With citrus, it even sounds refreshing. Not something one would normally say about Scotch. I'd hit it.

    June 4, 2014 at 7:02 am |
    • ™©JbJiNg!eŚ®™@

      Very sneaky, and I concur!

      June 4, 2014 at 8:49 am |
    • TNT

      "I'd hit it" Lol!

      June 4, 2014 at 11:40 am |
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