Fed up with "work disguised as a wedding," Don Draper approaches the bar at a country club in search of a proper Old Fashioned. It's the third episode of the third season of AMC's Mad Men and there's nary a bartender to be found. He takes matters into his own hands.
Two rocks glasses, two sugar cubes, six dashes each of bitters. He adds a healthy pour of Old Overholt Rye and a small bottle of water to a mixing glass half-full of ice. He confidently muddles the sugar cube and bitters, then splits the contents of the mixing glass between the two glasses after a quick stir. He adds an orange wedge to each and shares a toast with a stranger on a similar mission.
"That's one hell of a drink," his new friend remarks.
The Old Fashioned is among the first cocktails a home bartender learns to make and among the last he learns to perfect. It asks so much out of so few ingredients that we would expect little room for deviation, and yet one man's stiff drink is another man's fruit cocktail—and both men are right. It is a drink that grows and changes as we do: It is a reflection of our tastes, who we are, and who we want to be at a particular moment in time. As such, the Old Fashioned is our most personal drink, and each of us can say with absolute cause that ours is the best in the world.
"The Old Fashioned first came about because people were asking for a drink made in the 'old-fashioned way,' without all the fruit and frills," explains Joey Fredrickson, Beverage Director of Society Lounge on E. 4th St. "They wanted whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters, and I wanted to focus on that." Frederickson's take on the venerable classic uses Angostura bitters, rich Demerara simple syrup and Buffalo Trace Bourbon, though that's not to say he's stuck looking squarely in the past. "I wanted to recognize the post-Prohibition style of adding orange and a cherry. I use an orange peel instead, because it provides ample flavor without sacrificing simplicity."
Across town at The Fairmount in Cleveland Heights, 24 year-old wunderkind Jake Orosz says, "I like to add the tiniest splash of Antica Formula Carpano Vermouth. It gives the Old Fashioned a really nice, gummy mouthfeel." Orosz's version of the drink also includes amber agave nectar and cherries he bought from a roadside farmstand along Route 422.
And then there's the good old-fashioned sugar cube. Orosz includes it for the exact reason I choose to omit it—it never seems to fully dissolve. "I love the graininess," he gushes. Me? Not so much.
Fortunately, there's room enough for both of us to be right.
Recipe: The Old Fashioned
2 ounces Old Overhold Rye Whiskey
1 tsp. Demerara Simple Syrup
3 dashes Angostura Bitters
To make Demerara simple syrup, dissolve 2 cups of raw turbinado sugar (like Sugar In The Raw) into 1 cup of water over moderate heat. Let cool.
To an empty 8-ounce rocks glass, add the whiskey, simple syrup, and bitters and stir. Using a knife or vegetable peeler, cut a swath of orange peel and twist it over the glass to express the oils into the drink. Rub the orange peel around the rim, add it to the glass, and stir. Fill with ice and stir to chill. Optionally garnish with a cherry. (If all you have is the glowing red abominations from the grocery, add them to the trash can.)
Ryan Irvine writes about cocktails at Intoxicating Liquors (intoxicatingliquors.com).