Two years ago, I posted a basic recipe for making classic cocktail, the Old Fashioned, during ManMade's inaugural Cocktail Month festivities.
And two years ago, I was wrong. Quite wrong, in fact. I was just learning about cocktails, and was operating with the notion of the Old Fashioned I'd had in bars and restaurants, a fruited, soda water-y thing that actually tastes pretty good. But, it's a distortion of way an original Old Fashioned was made, which is so unbelievably better you'll never make it the new way again.
The Old Fashioned is likely the original cocktail. There are references as old as the novel Huckleberry Finn, which describes the adults drinking a mixture of whiskey, bitters, and sugar. Along with the martini and the Manhattan, it's also one of the purest cocktails, a basic mix of spirits and bitters. Once you start adding things like soda water or mixers, you're actually making a high ball.
Most importantly, an Old Fashioned is one of the best ways to enjoy and experience a whiskey. While I love a heavy glass and two ounces of neat whiskey as much as anyone, experiencing a new whiskey in an Old Fashioned is one of the best ways to learn the character of the spirit, and begin to understand its nuances and subtleties.
So, here are two options for making the ultimate Old Fashioned. I have no idea if you can actually have two ways to do something ulitimate, but there's one for the purists and one for the notch-steppers, both of which are super easy to make, cost little more than the spirits involved, and are delicious year round.
The Old Fashioned: Original, Old Old-Fashioned Way
All Old Fashions begin with the glass. There's a whole glass named for the drink, and old fashioned (or rocks) glass, so for this one, it's a no brainer. Choose a glass around 8 ox. with a wide heavy bottom, big enough that you can get you nose in there when you taste.
Add a single sugar cube, and soak it with three dashes of Angostura bitters, and allow them to soak into the sugar. While you can certainly substitute other aromatic bitters, these guys are the standard, and they're very easy to find. So, start with the classic, then experiment next time.
Add a tiny (and I mean tiny) splash of water to help dissolve the sugar, and muddle into a syrup with a cocktail muddler or the back of a wooden spoon.
Add two ounces of whiskey and swirl in the glass. Choose a straight bourbon or a rye. A blended whiskey can work in a pinch, but they're better off other places, and Scotches are better suited elsewhere.
Okay, that's an Old Fashioned, in its purest sense. Spirits, bitters, sugar. Smell it. As you drink, note how it changes. The sugar won't totally dissolve, and it'll leave this amazing gritty surprise at the bottom of the glass. It's amazing.
Then, experiment. You can add ice, if you like. Though it's not traditional, I love a small splash of soda water with a neat (no ice) Old Fashioned. The contrast between the grit of the sugar and the bubbles with the bitters is really something to be savored.
Okay, now onto the not-as-original, but the more practical and a bit more interesting version now that we have access to ingredients like citrus more easily than the Widow Douglas.
The Old Fashioned: The Traditional But Not as Old-Timey Way
Start with the same glass, but this time, instead of trying to dissolve a sugar cube, use a sugar syrup. My preference is a 2:1 syrup - two parts sugar, one part water - made with demerara sugar, which is less-processed cane sugar (most white sugar is made from beets). I like the 2:1 cause it gives the drink a better texture, and the demerara for its richer flavor and less-refined...uh, ness. It's more healthful, so you can have two Old Fashioneds. (Right?)
Add a mere quarter ounce 2:1 syrup, or 1/2 oz of traditional 1:1 syrup to the glass. In pinch, you can use agave nectar, but never honey or maple or corn syrup. Simple syrup takes two minutes to make, and lasts forever in the fridge.
Use a vegetable peeler to cut a 1 1/2-2" piece of orange or lemon zest. Don't cut as deep as to get any of the bitter white pith. Run the zest all over the rim of the glass to coat with oils. This adds an amazing aromatic quality that'll last throughout the drink. Then, add the zest to the glass along with 3-4 dashes of Angostura bitters, and muddle with medium strength. Don't break the citrus zest into pieces, just press to release the oils and let them mix with the sugar and bitters.
Add 2 oz of whiskey, and try some ice this time. Large, "rock"-style cubes are best here, or special whiskey stones or ice balls, which slow the dilution rate perfectly for a drink such as these. I keep this tray in the freezer for occassions just like these (read: this very one), and it works perfectly.
Stir several times with straw or cocktail spoon, and done. The ulitmate Old Fashioned.
Once you've become familiar, then you can experiment. Try it with different kinds of sweeteners, citrus, and amount of ice cubes. Try it with every whiskey you have access to. Try it with genever, or tequila.
Honestly, 75% of the time I have an Old Fashioned, I make it with the 2:1 demarara syrup, two ounces of rye or Kentucky bourbon, orange zest, and 4-5 dashes of bitters. The other 25%, I'll use a sugar cube and a bit of soda water, because I love how the drink changes in the glass as I drink it. Most of the time I don't use ice, because I happen to prefer my whiskey neat rather than cold. I do the same with Manhattans, Rob Roys, and Suburbans. Just my preference. Once you've got the basics down, you can try whatever you've got.