I started drinking Old Fashioneds in 2002 after one was suggested to me by a bartender at Employees Only, a mid-trend speakeasy in New York’s West Village. I must have told him I liked bourbon, and based on that he pulled this out of his hat.
I’ve since discovered that it’s a great drink to ask a bartender for, because there’s not one set recipe for it. So any time you ask for it, you’re asking the bartender to give you his or her take on an Old Fashioned. Most of the time, they appreciate the chance to be a bit of an artist, and you get to try something you’re probably going to like but that may be slightly different to any way you’ve had it before. (Obviously this works better in places that fancy themselves cocktail bars, where they’ve hired people that fancy themselves proper bartenders.)
A typical Old Fashioned is built around bourbon (but can be made with rye or brandy) and adds something sweet and something tart and/or bitter to make the drink more complex. It’s a sipping drink, not something you could drink as fast as a gin and tonic, say. A typical whole recipe might be
Bourbon, muddled cherry, sugar cube, bitters, lemon zest
Or it might be
Bourbon, simple syrup, orange peel, soda water
…and so on.
Something else that impacts how good the drink is is the ice, which I feel bad ranking a bartender on, since it’s not reflective of his or her artistry so much as the decisions of the owner of the bar. But good ice makes for a good drink, and good ice has a few characteristics: made from pure water, frozen slowly, with not too much surface area. This cools the drink to the right degree, without overly watering it down or making it so cold that the temperature overwhelms the tongue’s ability to taste in a nuanced way.
Enough background: here are some experiences I’ve had ordering and drinking Old Fashioneds around the world. (I’ll rank them out of four stars so you can glance down and see the highlights.) If you’ve got one to recommend please say so in the Comments.
The Coburg Bar at the Connaught Hotel (London, October 2010). One of the best I have had – fresh orange peel, a big drink, decent ice, not too strong or too sweet – just right. No muddled cherry, but three outstanding tart cherries (not maraschinos) spiked like olives on the skewer – a nice touch. ****
Purl (London, August 2010) – Not sweet enough, no cherry, but chunked ice. **1/2
HUNter 486 at the Arch Hotel (London, 2009-10) – These guys take cocktails seriously and their martini library is worth a visit – a great place to sit with friends or just relax yourself with a drink or a book. This is especially true in the winter hwen they have a fireplace going. They make an excellent-tasting Old Fashioned – no cherry, but they did use simple syrup. (I prefer simple syrup to sugar because sometimes the sugar doesn’t fully dissolve, ruining the last drink of the drink – some people like sugar though, because it is gritty and real.) ***
HUNter 486 at the Arch Hotel (London, 2010) – I will give them a second entry for the Cloud 19, written up in their cocktail menu as a “take” on the OF – made with rum, and with the bitters as more of a feature. The rum amped up the whole drink, giving a sweeter twist balanced with the bitters. However I would have liked some fruit to add some tartness. I had it on two different visits, and the second time it was much better – the second time I was told it was because Angelo, the bartender who had invented it, was behind the bar and had the best feel for how to make it. I like that the bartenders invent their own drinks. As for the Cloud 19, it was a nice change of pace but I wouldn’t go out of my way to have it again if I could have an Old Fashioned. **1/2
Employees Only (New York, 2002-09) – the bartender there suggested the first one I had, and I stuck with it, so it must have been good. I have been back in recent years and I think they still muddle the cherry. However I do remember being a little disappointed the last time I went back, so for now I will only give three stars, and I’ll take better notes next time I’m in New York. ***
Milk and Honey (London, 2009) – Nice setting, but the drink was a bit watery. Frankly I’ve always felt these guys were more focused on being a hip private club rather than making excellent cocktails. **
Milk and Honey (New York, 2002-2007) – the original underground speakeasy. Fantastic chunked ice and they always use fresh fruit. ***1/2.
Missioni Hotel (Edinburgh, August 2010) – The bartenders took great care with it, rubbing lemon zest on the rim of the glass and cracking the orange peel over the drink just before serving so the aroma hits your nose as you lift it to take your first sip. The mix of the actual drink wasn’t quite right but they certainly put some care and theatre into it. ***
The Golden Café (Black Rock City, 2005-09) – a relatively good drink served by lovely people in a mindblowing setting; I believe they even had fresh fruit. Some year I will bring them chunked ice. ***1/2
More posts to come as I remember them or drink in new places.