Now That It’s The New Year, Let’s Get Old Fashioned
Neal Dewing
By

It’s a new year, and well past time for another Weekend Cocktail. I’ve not written much since Christmas, having found the prospect of sitting down and banging out a column particularly burdensome with all the activity (both socially and professionally) of the holiday season. Considering also that my birthday follows close on the heels of the Nativity of Our Lord, I decided to make a gift to myself of a rather generous period of indolence.

I assure you that I didn’t take a break from drinking—nothing of the sort. There was that visit from my oldest, most depraved friend, Bill, the aftermath of which saw me swear off booze for something like a week. Yet soon enough I was back in the saddle, and it was only a matter of time before I could no longer convince myself that my sluggardly tendencies had been insufficiently indulged. Having now arrived at that point, I feel a measure of guilt for neglecting the more bibulously-inclined readers of The Federalist. To remedy this, I have roused myself from sloth and am resolved to resume imparting what wisdom I can on the matter of drink.

Speaking of resolve: a new year is typically accompanied by resolutions, whether to eat less, exercise more, quit some vice (God help them, some people even cut out booze), or otherwise improve upon oneself. I confess I have never really seen the utility of this. In my experience, most resolutions are made in response to a vague sense of guilt or inadequacy, and embarked upon with little planning and thus without a clear plan to effect them. When the poor unfortunate inevitably backslides, the shame of failure is tacked onto that initial self-loathing. Heaven help them if they have foolishly told others their plans. This only compounds the unpleasantness.

In the case of resolutions, one small slip-up can be all it takes to begin convincing oneself that the entire project is a wash.

It shouldn’t be controversial to note that human beings have a marvelous capacity for justifying their behavior. In the case of resolutions, one small slip-up can be all it takes to begin convincing oneself that the entire project is a wash.

Oops, I had the dessert—but I’ve been good this week.

Ugh, it’s so cold out. I don’t feel like going to the gym.

Before they know it, they’ve eaten an entire ice-cream cake in one sitting or skipped their workout for a month and a half. Rather than confront this eventuality as a minor (and recoverable) setback, they rationalize: because they’ve already messed up, a bit more won’t hurt anything. With each subsequent rationalization, it becomes easier and easier to silence that small, scolding voice reminding you of what used to be your commitment. In for a penny, in for a pound (or maybe ten pounds, and the next pants-size up).

Best to forget the whole sorry business. New Year’s resolutions are just a society-wide attempt to find a common topic of conversation after Christmas, and any serious goals for life are far too precious to trust to that kind of bandwagoning nonsense.

Upon reflection, though…I will admit that I told myself I was going to write more consistently in 2015. And this preface to the part of the article you want to read does seem a bit like a justification for immediately failing to deliver. But why dwell on that? Onward and upward.

How to Make the Right Old-Fashioned

It’s a minor scandal that I haven’t written about the Old-Fashioned before now. This is one of the foremost cocktails and is also one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable. Kingsley Amis rated it highly, and held it in equal esteem to the Dry Martini (although on the opposite end of the cocktail spectrum). So established is this drink that a rocks glass is commonly called an Old-Fashioned glass; the two are interchangeable. An Old Fashioned is simple and sweet, and anybody can pull off a decent one.

There are a few ways to go wrong, however, which I will get into below. I typically give wide latitude to the individual when crafting these cocktails, but in this case I feel rather strongly about the subject. I’m thus compelled to preserve you from what I view as serious error. Before all that, though, you’ll need the correct ingredients.

  • 2-3 oz. Bourbon (cheap)
  • 2 tsp. sugar (or equivalent syrup)
  • Few dashes Angostura bitters
  • Orange slices (optional)
  • Maraschino cherry (optional)
  • still (a.k.a. branch) water (optional but recommended)
  • ice

To begin, add the sugar to the bottom of the empty rocks glass. Most people are able to get at least this far into the recipe without screwing it up. After this, it gets dicey, though. The very beginning is where so many Old Fashioneds go wrong these days. Amis suggests using syrup instead of granulated sugar, and this is prudent counsel. The aim is to dissolve the sugar completely for the best possible mix.

Saturate the sugar with at least two dashes of Angostura bitters. I prefer to go a little heavier on it, myself. Don’t muck around with fancy-flavor bitters, no matter who tells you otherwise. Stick with the tried and true.

If you aren’t using syrup, you’ll want to add just a quick splash of slightly warm water. Not too much, but just enough to encourage the sugar to dissolve. Muddle it until this is accomplished.

Now here’s where things get contentious.

If your barman tries to muddle fruit in your Old Fashioned, for God’s sake stop him before he pours the booze.

Sometime in the recent past it became established practice to muddle an obscene amount of orange and cherry in with the sugar and bitters. This is wrong, and disgusting. If your barman tries to muddle fruit in your Old Fashioned, for God’s sake stop him before he pours the booze. There are few things more unsightly than an orange and cherry pulp in the bottom of your glass. From a practical perspective, this superfluous wad of organic matter only serves to impede the smooth consumption of your drink. Floating bits of mangled fruit disagreeably cloud its appearance and get stuck in your teeth. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of tipping up my tumbler for the final swallow only to have an execrable mass of waste-fruit shift in the glass and plop onto my nose. No, no, no muddled fruit.

The addition of any fruit at all is strictly optional. Purists insist that it should only be a garnish, but here I differ. My preference is to squeeze an orange wedge over the drink and add its non-pulpy juice to the sugar and bitters. It adds to the overall flavor, smooths the bourbon a bit, and yields none of the horrors described above.

From here on out, it’s smooth sailing. Fill the glass with ice, then garnish with an orange slice and a maraschino cherry. Add the bourbon. Breaking into the reserve would be a waste, so just use Jim Beam.

At this point you may choose to drink it as-is, or top it off with a bit of the branch water and a quick stir. Topping it off will stretch the Old Fashioned, but won’t dilute the flavor too dramatically. This is usually how I take it. If you prefer it stronger, by all means proceed without.

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Another firm point here: never, under any circumstances, use soda water in an Old Fashioned. This is a really deplorable innovation that we need to stamp out from decent society. The use of soda water in this drink is a gently fizzing declaration of regrettable ignorance or unforgivable apathy.

There you have it: One of the world’s most perfectly enjoyable cocktails, laid out for you precisely the way it should be prepared. Deviate at your peril, but however you drink it may you drink in good health.

Postscript: Wisconsin

It is worth digressing here at the end to note that Wisconsin lays claim to its own peculiar variation on the Old Fashioned. Theirs is based on brandy, most likely as a result of the heavy influx of German immigrants and the taste for the stuff they carried over from the old country.

What they make in Wisconsin is, to my mind, a wholly separate drink worthy of its own examination in a future article. If some of my readers from that area would care to show me around the bars, I could be convinced to make the trip. I’ll be damned if I’m going that far North before June, though.

Neal Dewing lives and works in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is the co-host of The Fifth Estate, a podcast examining culture and politics.

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