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Eat & Drink

How to make a cocktail: the Old Fashioned

Posted by Jen Hunter / January 22, 2013

Old FashionedAs with the division of opinion over egg whites in a cocktail (via last week's piece), the Old Fashioned is a cocktail that has split much of the bartending community in terms of the necessary ingredients. Lots of bartenders tell me that this will be the first drink they order on arrival at a new bar: the delivery thereof will often be the acid-test of whether to explore the cocktail menu further or just stick with a beer.

At it's best, the Old Fashioned is an elegant mix of delicately sweet and spicy whiskey. In the wrong hands, it can be a fizzy mess of undissolved sugar and gunky fruit. As far as the things that everyone agrees on go, it's that the drink must contain North American whiskey (most will insist on bourbon, but as with many Prohibition era cocktails, it's likely that this drink was first prepared with rye), sugar, and bitters, all stirred over ice and served on the rocks. From there the discussion is endless, and fierce.

Old Fashioned CocktailOne camp, led by one of the USA's great bartenders and cocktail historians, Dale Degroff, insists that the drink be prepared not only with the addition of a splash of soda water, but also with muddled fruit. In particular, a maraschino cherry and an orange slice. Degroff insists that anything else is just "sweetened whiskey."

Naturally, the other camp disagrees heavily, calling the addition of any fruits (other than a garnish of lemon or orange zest) the result of a need for a "fruit salad" rather than a cocktail. The current champion of this school of thought is Brad Thomas Parsons, whose book Bitters has called for a better understanding of the real flavouring agent in this classic drink. The introduction of other influences prevents the enjoyment of the whiskey, and, more importantly, the complex flavours of the bitters.

20120121manhattan06.jpgAt Toronto's County General, Toronto's leading bitters advocate, Bar Manager Jeff Carroll, couldn't agree more. He lovingly produces a number of different flavours to accent his drinks, with his Manhattan (using a home-made Cherry Masala Chai bitters) named as one of Toronto's best.

Jeff begins in a mixing glass (Jeff explains that you should "never make a cocktail in the glass you serve it in") with a cube of raw sugar, soaked in his bitters, which is then mashed before expressing the oils from the zest of an orange into the mixture. 2 ounces of Maker's Mark are then stirred into the drink to fully dissolve the sugar before ice is added. A further 20 seconds of stirring are needed before straining over fresh ice into a short tumbler, or "rocks" glass. Add the orange peel to garnish.

20120121manhattan07.jpgIngredients and Instructions

1 raw sugar cube
ΒΌ oz of cherry masala chai bitters
1 zest of orange
2 oz of Makers Mark bourbon

Jeff's bitters recipes are a closely guarded secret (though he admits using a combination of cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and dried cherries steeped in bourbon, to name a few ingredients). His own inspiration came from sniffing around his spice rack at home, but he heartily recommends Angostura for anyone wanting to make the drink themselves without going to all the trouble.

20120121manhattan08.jpgIf you are interested in making your own bitters, Jeff reminds us that it's not an overnight process, and to set aside at least two weeks to allow the flavours to mingle. If you want to try his concoctions, including Apple Cinnamon Bourbon Bitters, and Cranberry Orange Rum Bitters, get down to County General at 936 Queen St. West.

Photos by Natta Summerky



neillon / January 22, 2013 at 01:13 pm
there go the chances of anyone ever getting prompt service at a bar again.

admittedly delicious, yet yawningly time-consuming. i fearfully envision bartenders across our fair city having to mix up batches of these things for bachelorette parties and law student barhops.

the agony.
Slick Rick / January 22, 2013 at 01:46 pm
prompt service? what is this mr lube?

15 old fashioneds and a line of bitter charlie, and the night is mine.
Liza / January 22, 2013 at 02:03 pm
" but as with many Prohibition era cocktails, it's likely that this drink was first prepared with rye"

The Old Fashioned is not a "prohibition era cocktail". It originated in the 19th century and there are recipes from the 1860s advising the use of Bourbon in the drink. It was also frequently prepared with Gin, and, yes, probably Rye as well.
Erik replying to a comment from Slick Rick / January 22, 2013 at 02:17 pm
lmao, well said Pal.
Rob / January 23, 2013 at 11:34 am
"Never make a cocktail in the glass you serve it in"
Thanks for setting the Toronto bar back another step. You should always make a cocktail in the glass you serve it in. It's called a "build", and how a c
Rob replying to a comment from Rob / January 23, 2013 at 11:38 am
...Cocktail (spirit, sugar, bitters, citrus, water) should be made.
Now customers will think someone making a proper old fashioned (a cocktail with NA whisk(e)y and orange) is doing it wrong. Try reading more than one book before you tell your city how it's done.
Lisa / January 23, 2013 at 08:31 pm
joe mama replying to a comment from Rob / January 23, 2013 at 08:31 pm
1. You must work in a night club...

2. You must be a bar back...

3. If you think you should always build a cocktail than you should read at least one cocktail book.

Alex G / January 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm
People should just stop writing and blogging about Old Fashioneds. Mad Men should also have never existed. Also if I received an Old Fashioned that was stirred for 20 seconds, I'd probably slide it back to the bartender.
Vincent Pollard / January 29, 2013 at 04:55 pm
I've nothing against doing an Old Fashioned this way - it looks pretty good - but traditionally it's a drink that's always built in the glass. It's a 'built' drink, like a negroni and typically is only stirred 4 times gently with a stir stick or straw, not strained.
MOMMIE DEAREST / January 30, 2013 at 01:36 pm
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but don't mess with a professinal. Jeff had the best education and has been doing this most of his life. Just try it and you'll see the difference.
yer lewis bag replying to a comment from Vincent Pollard / January 31, 2013 at 07:48 am
that's why it's called an "old fashioned glass". It's not wrong to build it in another glass, it is just wrong to touch the rim of the glass during the build (use a bevnap). A super traditional old fashioned cocktail would have used loaf sugar and handcut ice that could have been slimey. It's like the Sazerac preparation in NOLA - if it is for a single guest at the wood; put on the show, if it four of em for the floor, mix it in the tin and bang em out.
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