Origin myths are funny things. The cocktail has more of them than I can count, and most bartenders have their favourite. I used to be of the school that believed in the story whereby Antoine Peychaud would serve Sazerac cognac with his eponymous bitters in eggcups, or, in french, ‘coquetel’, and this was bastardised to cocktails.
But recently I’ve come upon a much more convincing story; the cocktail was actually a style of drink, much like flips, grogs, rickeys and juleps. The cocktail specified a spirit with ice, sugar (syrup) and bitters of some sort. This was a popular drink; easy to prepare in almost any bar and great at disguising the harsh spirits of the time. Over time, the popularity of the ‘cocktail’ led to the adoption of cocktail, and drinkers who wanted their booze stirred with sugar and bitters would order an ‘old fashioned cocktail’. Compelling, no?
So let’s dig into that Old Fashioned. In the 80’s, 90’s and Wisconsin, this drink was completely ruined by the addition of muddled orange wedges and cherries. Luckily, we’ve stepped away from the brink, and the modern old fashioned is a study in understated cocktail magnificence.
Let’s start with the glass. Like the collins, the old fashioned requires it’s own glass. It’s pretty much the same as any rocks or lowball glass, but it must be your old fashioned glass. You should never drink an old fashioned at home out of any other glass, unless a parent or lover requires your best glassware. For me, at least, the most important feature of the glass is the weight of the base; you want a glass you can cradle in your hand, stare into the depths of and ponder unponderables.
Into our glass we pop one sugar cube. Or a teaspoon of sugar. Or (for the sake of consistency, especially), 2 teaspoons of sugar syrup.
A note on sugar syrup:
Sugar syrup is great. It’s the key to making your cocktails consistent, and your best friend for balance and flavour in mixed drinks. To make it, add the 2 cups of sugar to one of water (2:1 by volume). Shake well, and leave for around 30 minutes, shaking occasionally, until all the sugar is dissolved. You shouldn’t need to heat the mix unless you’re in a rush, as making a cold syrup gets you a thicker end product (good for cocktails).
Now add 4-6 dashes of Angostura Bitters. You can use other bitters here, to taste, but I like using a base of Angostura and building on that. If you’ve used a sugar cube, you’re going to need to crush that with your muddler. Now add a single ice cube, and stir your sugar and ice cube until all the granules have dissolved. If you’re using sugar syrup, you can skip ahead.
Once the sugar is dissolved, and your first ice cube is going to be pretty much melted, add about half a glass of ice, and a first shot of bourbon (or rye, or tequila, or rum, and so on…) (I’ve picked Jim Beam Devil’s Cut tonight; a very robust bourbon that works brilliantly in an old fashioned). Stir that together for about 30 seconds.
Grab an orange and carefully slice off a large chunk of peel; you don’t want to get any of the fruit itself, and try and minimise the amount of pith you get. Grab the peel between fingertips and thumb, and carefully bend it over the drink, so you catch as much of the orange oil in the glass as possible.
Finally, top off the glass with ice, pop your orange peel on top, add another shot of bourbon and give it a cursory stir before retiring to your chosen spot to indulge.
* the keen eyed among you will spot that I’ve used a single massive ice cube for my old fashioned. That’s because I’m a baller.