Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tempest In A Tumbler: The Old Fashioned Debate.

It's not much as controversies go, but a kerfuffle erupted earlier this week about the correct way to make an Old Fashioned, a classic cocktail, perhaps the classic whiskey cocktail.

It began when cocktails enthusiast Martin Doudoroff launched an elegant web site called Old Fashioned 101. At the end, he cites in a general way Dale DeGroff, Ted 'Dr. Cocktail' Haigh, Gaz Regan, Robert Hess, and David Wondrich.

Robert Simonson lit the powder keg with a favorable piece in the New York Times, exception to which was taken by Kevin Kosar.

Kosar challenges Doudoroff's claim that his recipe is the original. He points out that DeGroff offers a different recipe, as does Regan. They, with backgrounds as working bartenders, make the version most people expect, where a sugar cube is muddled with bitters and water, and the drink is garnished with an orange slice and maraschino cherry.

In his critique, Kosar correctly observes that 'original' does not automatically mean 'best.' He calls conflating the two "historical culinary sophistry."

The Old Fashioned comes with an appealing mythology, which itself goes back at least 80 years. Supposedly, the drink was invented more than a century ago by a bartender at Louisville's Pendennis Club, which boasted as members all of the local whiskey barons. It was subsequently introduced to the world by one of them, James E. Pepper, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel's bar in New York.

Doudoroff, however, convincingly argues that 'old-fashioned' was just a way for bar patrons to order a whiskey cocktail made the 'old-fashioned' way, with whiskey, simple syrup (i.e., sugar), bitters, water, and a twist of lemon. It would be ironic indeed if the original meaning of 'old-fashioned' had evolved into something new-fashioned.

Drinking whiskey with a little sugar is a tradition almost as old as granulated sugar itself, which became wildly popular in Europe and the Americas in the 18th century. As barrel aging became common and whiskey became naturally sweetened with wood sugar, adding cane or beet sugar became less common, but the custom could certainly be called old-fashioned.

The commonly accepted recipe Doudoroff eschews does incorporate superfluous showmanship with the ceremonial dissolving of the sugar cube, which becomes in the drink exactly what you get Doudoroff's way.

Then there's the garnish, which is very much out of fashion here in Chicago if used strictly for decorative purposes. Yet, and this is Haigh and Wondrich territory, the cocktail as it evolved from punch was always five ingredients: spirit, water, sugar, spice, and fruit. Doudoroff's lemon twist is in keeping with modern practice since it flavors the drink with lemon oil.

Although Kosar seems a little cranky about it, this is the kind of argument everyone should have with a smile on their face and a drink in their hand.


Anonymous said...

I grew up in Antioch, a little north of you, and my grandparents always drank Brandy Old Fashioneds. Sugar, bitters, club soda, cherries (with maybe a splash of the cherry juice), and an orangle slice.

I recently came across this article which had an interesting take on what may be a localized phenomenon. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Your link is to Robert Simonson's blog. Robert is the New York Times writer whose article sparked the post above. Robert is a native of Wisconsin and knows well the Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned phenomenon. Antioch, of course, is still Illinois but very close to the border. So it all ties together.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the beginnings of the next Kindle book, if you're so inclined...

SteveBM said...

I make mine by muddling a sugar cube dashed with orange bitters w/ a nice slice of orange, spinning with a few cubes of ice, and then pouring in either bourbon or rye. I've tried about a half dozen or so versions and this is the one I like best.

Kevin R. Kosar said...

Well put, Chuck! Yes, I did get a bit cranky, but the cause was Douderoff's high-handedness and snobery on the matter---he essentially pounds his fist and declares that there is just ONE TRUE AND ANCINET WAY to make the Old Fashioned, and that the other very widely utilized recipe is decadent. Not very cordial, to say the least! And as anyone who has done much historical research knows, all knowledge is tentative. Who knows---perhaps Wondrich or someone wil find an even earlier reference to making cocktails the old fashioned way, and maybe their recipe will involve birch or honey!



Anonymous said...

Like most mixology debates, this one would be easier to resolve if everyone just read their Wondrich. In Imbibe! he blows up the Pendennis myth and finds multiple 19th-century recipes for a cocktail with spirits, sugar, ice, bitters, and lemon peel that give us a pretty good sense of the origin of the old-fashioned. This isn't very complicated stuff; anyone who wants to quibble should act like a good academic and do their research.

That said, the Doudoroff site is unfortunate in tone and should at minimum recognize that most reasonable people are going to want ice in their old-fashioned (I'd stir the drink with cracked ice and strain over a large cube myself). I'd prefer something that's less of a polemic and more conciliatory, so that we might convert the orange-and-cherry crowd over time. To them I'd say no one should begrudge you the drink that you prefer, but you and I have markedly different taste.

Lastly, it's sad to see Mr. Kosar fall back on the who is and who is not a professional bartender as a line of argument. Yes, Dale DeGroff is a bartender with a nickname, but I've read recipes in his books that I'd never mix based on my experience alone. We live in a world where a systems analyst is a recognized authority on the Savoy Cocktail Book (hell, 60 years ago we lived in a world where a tax attorney wrote one of the most striking, original works on mixology ever published). If I may be a little bold, making drinks thoughtfully can call for an amount of time many of those in the business simply don't have. Mixology is a wonderfully democratic pursuit and may that never change.

Michael Shoshani said...

"Drinking whiskey with a little sugar is a tradition almost as old as granulated sugar itself, which became wildly popular in Europe and the Americas in the 18th century."

Two words: Rock and Rye.

Okay, so I miscounted. ;) But Rock and Rye probably goes back to sugar refining in Colonial days.