Friday, February 6, 2015
Understanding the Old Fashioned
"The Old Fashioned is a concept. Not a specific drink," says Sean Kenyon, an award-winning mixologist based in Denver. His point is that there is no exact spec for it. There are many different right ways to make an Old Fashioned.
Historically, the Old Fashioned is the bridge between punches and cocktails. It has the five punch ingredients: alcohol, citrus, spice, sugar, and water. It also involves a bit of ceremony in the making, as punches often did.
The punch tradition came to Europe from India in the mid-17th century. Later, people began to adapt traditional punch recipes for single-serving preparation and the modern cocktail was born.
Just as the Old Fashioned isn't really a cocktail, some believe its name isn't really a name but a description. They believe it referred to the 'old-fashioned' way of drinking bourbon and rye, with sugar and water. By the end of the 19th century, the best whiskeys were well-enough made to be enjoyed straight, so the once ubiquitous practice of adding sugar to bourbon or rye was dying out. People who continued to enjoy it that way would request an "old-fashioned bourbon," which was eventually shortened to simply "old-fashioned."
The use of bitters and citrus fruit garnishes were innovations of the cocktail era that were incorporated into the Old Fashioned tradition.
At Lexington's Keeneland Race Track one afternoon, drinking with Elmer T. Lee, the legendary Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace Distillery, he ordered a "highball" of Buffalo Trace Bourbon and 7Up. Put a dash of bitters in that and it's an Old Fashioned. Despite Mr. Lee's endorsement, Bourbon and Seven is considered a lowbrow cocktail these days, but all of the elements are there linking it to a mixed drink tradition that goes back hundreds of years.
The mistake most home bartenders make with simple mixers is too much mixer. In the South, a properly made Jack and Coke contains more Jack than Coke and is served in an on-the-rocks glass, not as a highball. It's the same if the mixer is a lemon-lime soda like 7Up or Sprite. Both drinks were corrupted by bars that wanted to serve a big drink with relatively little alcohol in it, and consumers who don't like whiskey and prefer to mask its taste, but sometimes the old ways are better.
Everyone should feel free to drink their drinks however they like, but you don't have to follow the herd.