Spiriturgy 002: “I’m not old, I’m just distinguished” – Old Fashioned and Old Fashioned (No. 2)

Welcome back! Before we get into the drinks proper, let’s take a quick look at the overall structure of W.C. Whitfield’s Just Cocktails, as well as how each of these posts will be loosely organized.

I. Structural integrity

Just Cocktails divides itself into five major sections, as follows:

Cock Tales & Cocktails ~ Old Favorites
“Pretty” Cocktails ~ The More Colorful Ones
“Epicurean” Cocktails ~ The Cordials and Such
“Favorite Sons” ~ Of Purely Local Fame
Cocktails of the Gay Nineties ~ Old-Timers (ed. note: this is referring to the eighteen-nineties)

The first section, Cock Tales & Cocktails, contains 29 recipes and concerns itself with classics and common favorites. You may recognize quite a few of the names, which will be a harder feat to replicate as we move to later sections!

Groupings aside, Whitfield’s formatting of recipes is consistent throughout the entire book – that is to say, with a paucity of detail on particulars and methodology. Nearly every recipe tells you the ingredients and the proportions thereof, and nothing else (see image at right). As such, actually creating these cocktails from the book requires a combination of outside research and experimentation, and I’ll attempt to document my processes as we go along.

In terms of how each post will be structured, the current plan is to begin with 1) necessary preambles or housekeeping notes, followed by 2) providing the direct recipes, 3) notes on specific ingredients, 4) info on required drinkmaking tools, and then 5) a discussion of how I put Whitfield’s original recipes into modern practice. I’ve also created separate pages to catalogue all previously discussed ingredients and tools of the trade for ease of use.

Now! Without further ado…

II. Today’s recipes

Old Fashioned
1 jigger Bourbon
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1/2 lump sugar
2 spoons water
Stir and then add lump of ice and pieces of lemon and orange.

Old Fashioned (No. 2)
1 jigger Rye
1 dash Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Orange Bitters
1 lump sugar (crushed)
1 lump of ice
Decorate with lemon and orange.

And here’s Whitfield’s guide to measurements – for today, we’re only really working with jiggers (1.5 oz) and dashes (1/3 tsp). Pouring an accurate jigger is no trouble with the right tools, but “dashes” are trickier: in practice, it’s nearly impossible to add precisely measured amounts to drinks, primarily because bitters bottles come with spouts that dispense only a few drops at a time (meaning they don’t get along very well with measuring spoons). My advice is to avoid stressing out about it and just experiment until you’ve found an amount of bitters suited to your taste.

You’ll also notice that the first recipe calls for “spoons” of water, without specifying barspoons or teaspoons – this sort of laissez-faire attitude to terminological consistency is something we’ll see quite a lot of.

III. Our Ingredients

McAfee’s Benchmark No. 8 bourbon whiskey – Bourbon is a quintessential American whiskey, classified as having a mash bill with at least 51% corn (the mash bill is the initial mixture of cereal grains used in brewing and distilling). Benchmark has perhaps the best price-to-quality ratio in the bourbon world: it’ll never win any awards, but is alarmingly drinkable for how little you pay for it. I’m no expert on whiskey flavor profiles, but bourbons by and large tend to be a bit sweeter and carry a bit more body than other varieties.

Redemption Rye whiskey – Arguably the other quintessential American whiskey, rye was consumed much more in pre-Prohibition days, although it’s currently seeing a promising comeback. Similar to bourbon, the whiskey’s mash requires at least 51% rye to be labeled as “rye,” although as a buyer you want to look for a much higher quantity in order to highlight rye’s specific qualities. Redemption Rye touts a 95% rye mash bill and is distilled to 92 proof – I’ve found it a good mid-range choice, price-wise, and it ably demonstrates rye’s spicier, drier character.

Angostura Bitters – A classic flavoring agent and a vital member of any bar, Angostura bitters hail from Trinidad & Tobago have been produced since 1830. I first purchased them not really knowing what to expect, but upon smelling and tasting them in drinks I’m not sure precisely how I coped beforehand. Despite their name, Angostura bitters don’t add nearly as much bitterness to a drink as you’d expect – rather, it’s their semi-sweet, herbal and aromatic qualities that enrich oodles of drinks. Of course, though, your palate is the best judge in terms of how heavy a hand to dash them out.

Fee Brothers Orange Bitters – Flavored bitters arrayed in a row are a more common sight in liquor stores these days, and I suspect that you see a lot of gimmicky and unorthodox flavors (curry, anyone?) alongside the actual classics. Since bitter-buying could easily be a slippery slope, I’m sticking to fairly low-priced options until I get more familiar with the subject. Fee Brothers Orange Bitters lack the herbal and aromatic complexity of Angostura, but they do have a potent orange flavor that almost crosses the line (“reminiscent of Tang,” per one of my guests). I’m curious to try other makers of orange bitters as time and money allows.

Sugar – Normally something as commonplace as sugar wouldn’t merit further discussion here, but reading over Whitfield’s vague mentions of “lumps” and “1/2 lumps” in the Old Fashioned recipes above set me off on a research trail. Unfortunately, I haven’t hit upon anything concrete as to what a standard “lump” would have been in 1939, in terms of sugar type or volume, although I suspect it would probably be brown cane sugar as opposed to our processed modern table sugar. In my head I’m planning a revisit to Old Fashioneds down the road when we can play around a bit more with different sweeteners.

IV. Tools of the trade

Of course there are ways to improvise around nearly everything when making drinks, but here are the basic tools I’ve invested in and find regular use for:

Jigger – Jiggers come in various shapes, sizes, and materials, although as a standard-bearer I rely on a no-frills stainless steel version. The larger end gives you a 1.5 oz pour, equal to Whitfield’s definition of a jigger and also consistent with a standard shot at a bar nowadays, and the opposite end gives you half that (.75 oz). One thing to remember is that in order to provide accurate measurements, you must fill the jigger to its very brim – so have a towel around to catch spare droplets unless you’ve got uncommonly steady hands.

Muddler – Muddlers are most commonly used for fruit or herbs, to release oils and flavors into the drink, although today we’ll use it to crush and mix our “lumps” of sugar. When buying a muddler, you want to ensure it is made with unvarnished wood, since a stain or varnish will inevitably start to come off with repeated use (and where will it go? Into your drink!). My muddler comes from Vic Firth, originally a maker of drumsticks who has branched out into producing great wood cooking tools  (in fact, my father enjoys the use of one of his pepper mills).

Barspoon – you hardly need a dedicated spoon to make drinks, at least in my experience, but it’s still nice to have on hand (and the long handle comes in handy when stirring things in tall glasses or a shaker). My spoon doesn’t quite match Whitfield’s measurement of 1 barspoon = 1/2 tsp (it’s a bit bigger, as many American things have gotten in the past 70+ years), but it still comes in handy when you don’t feel the need to be overly fussy with small amounts.


V. The process

Even though Whitfield provides two separate Old Fashioned recipes, in practice they’re extremely similar, to the point where I’m not going to go into two nearly-identical recounts. Basically, if you want to make a Whitfield-approved Old Fashioned, you just need to answer a few questions to yourself:

– What kind of whiskey do I want to use (bourbon or rye)?
– What kind of bitters do I want to use (Angostura, or Angostura + orange)?
– How much sugar do I want to use? (ed. note – I have a strong opinion on this, but it’s still up to you)
– Do I want to dilute with a small amount of water, or no?

That list represents all of the differences in recipes we need to account for, and I think you’d be pleased with the result with any combination of choices. All this is just a bit of rationale for why I’m not being much of a stickler for separating Old Fashioned No. 1 from No. 2 – the basic idea (whiskey, sugar, bitters, garnish) is totally consistent.

Now, then! To begin, you want to be working with chilled glasses – this is almost a universal axiom when making cocktails, unless the drink itself is meant to be served at room temperature or warm. Thanks to modern technology, the easiest way to chill glasses is just to put them in the freezer for a bit (empty – that part’s important). They can stay in there as long as they want, so don’t worry about losing track of them, but they also don’t need much time to get pleasantly frosty. The correct glass for serving an Old Fashioned is aptly named an Old Fashioned glass, or rocks glass, but of course other things will do if you’re in a pinch.

Once your glass is chilled, we start with the sugar. Here’s where Whitfield’s vague use of “a lump of sugar” gave me some pause. Initially, I went with a fair assumption that 1 lump = 1 teaspoon, which also made following the two different recipes a cinch (my sugar cubes are 1/2 tsp apiece, so a half-lump is one cube while a full lump is two). However, either my assumption was flawed or Whitfield is a bit nutty, since a full teaspoon’s worth of sugar is absolutely too much to use in making a balanced drink – it gets cloying and syrupy, and that much sugar also gets quite stubborn about fully dissolving into your other ingredients. Bottom line: I would never outright tell you how to make your drink, but one sugar cube is plenty as far as I’m concerned. If it’s on hand, you can also use simple syrup to taste – this will also prevent any possible frustration from undissolved sugar down the road.

Next, you want to add your bitters, suffusing the sugar cube to make it easier to crush and dissolve. You can use just Angostura, or Angostura as well as orange bitters if you like, but I can’t in good conscience endorse using orange bitters without Angostura – it’s an indispensable part of the drink’s flavor, and it’s been in use long enough that they must be doing something right. So the bitters situation is one or both, but not either/or. Again, since you’ll pull your hair out trying to get exactly 1/3 tsp per Whitfield’s measurements, use your judgment and adjust your amounts in later iterations if you like.

After dashing in your preferred amount of bitters, take a muddler (or some other gently crushing implement – a wooden spoon would work fine) and mush the cube into fine grains. There’s no need to be violent or rough with it – you don’t want to risk damaging your glass at all, and nothing more than firm, gentle pressure is needed anyway (this principle is true when muddling fruit and herbs as well: the goal is to massage oils and flavors out of them, not maim and pulp them beyond recognition). At this point, you can also add a spoon or two of water if you’d like – it’ll just add a bit more liquid to aid the sugar in dissolving, and dilute the cocktail ever so slightly, but it’s purely a matter of personal preference.

At this point, add your jigger of preferred whiskey and stir. Most of the sugar should be fairly dissolved by now, although don’t worry if takes a bit of time – sugar is not as soluble in alcohol as it is in water, but it’ll get there eventually. Besides, we’ve got a couple more steps yet to complete, and you can always give it another stir down the road. The fundamental drink is basically done at this point, but we still need to garnish it and give it a bit of citrus to round it out. Either lemon or orange would do the trick nicely, though since Whitfield calls for both (and they certainly complement each other), we’ll indulge him.

 

There are plenty of tutorials on the web for cutting fruit for cocktails, so you can seek those out on your own – though nothing really elaborate is needed, I just cut wedges of each with a slit in the middle to rest on the glass’s rim (running them around the entire circumference first to get a bit of oil and juice distributed). Presentation-wise, it’s up to you if you want to let them rest there, or toss them in with the liquid after running each around the entire rim – I personally like them in the drink itself, to keep it from getting cluttered and to keep leaching out a bit more citrus flavor. You may hear from other sources that a true Old Fashioned only uses a twist of lemon or orange peel, not actual pieces of fruit – but since Whitfield actually specifies pieces, and also clearly states when to use a twist in later recipes, I’m indulging him. Personally, I hardly think full wedges of fruit spoil the drink, as long as we keep a light hand and don’t abuse them to death (which can be a sadly common practice, as you’ll find if you keep reading).

The only thing left is a piece of ice – I agree with Whitfield that just one is sufficient. Since we don’t have that much liquid in play, burying it in ice will just overly weaken the drink as it gradually melts, whereas a single cube can nicely mellow things as it slowly melts from the liquid and the warmth of the drinker’s hand. And remember, your ice is as clean as the water you make it with – I make ice with water from my filter pitcher, since Chicago tap water (while drinkable) is not exactly gourmet.

And now that you’ve read through my extremely lengthy explanation, kick back and enjoy your cocktail! Old Fashioneds are considered a quintessential before-dinner drink, and I find that they do indeed whet the appetite nicely. One thing you may notice is that the drink itself hardly fills your glass – don’t worry, that’s quite normal. There are a few things that account for this:

1. Most rocks glasses sold today are “double” glasses, rather than the older “single” style (with a capacity of 10-14 oz instead of 5-8 oz).
2. We’re using very little ice, which leads to little displacement of the liquid.
3. Latter-day preparations of an Old Fashioned may include adding extra ingredients to fill out the glass (see immediately below).

VI. Pre- and post-Prohibition

What we just made is the classic pre-Prohibition preparation of an Old Fashioned. After Prohibition was repealed, the drink evolved in ways considered by many to be not especially positive. Some developments included:

Inclusion of a Maraschino cherry or other fruits (pineapple is uncommon but particularly egregious)
Mixing with club soda to dilute the spirits and fill the glass
Muddling fruit directly with the sugar

You can imagine how any combination of those factors could give us an unfocused, too-sweet version of the drink. Fortunately, our modern age’s blend of scholarship and nostalgia is combating a lot of misconceptions about what a traditional Old Fashioned is meant to be.

For some further reading, here’s a great New York Times article and a great single-serving site called Old Fashioned 101. You’ll notice that even among authorities we may see some disagreements on composition and technique (for example, Old Fashioned 101 states that there is “no slice of orange in an Old Fashioned,” despite Whitfield’s recommendation). Ultimately, everything comes down to your preferences, so experiment, have fun, and please share any thoughts, ideas, feedback, or anything else!

And as a bonus, because that NYT article name-drops Don Draper, let’s take a look at the man’s own Old Fashioned technique:

0:29 – Of course rye is okay with him, Don.

0:37 – Staying on-book thus far, saturating sugar cubes with bitters (if the bar didn’t have bourbon, it’s a fair shake that they don’t have simple syrup either).

0:48 – What’s that huge glass of ice for, Don? No, Don, what are you doing?

1:06 – No, Don, no, what are you adding in there? Club soda? Nooooooo, you were doing so well!

1:12 – From the sound of it, Don’s a little heavy-handed with his muddling technique. What’s in the glasses is also so vividly red that you could make an argument that he’s muddling the sugar together with a Maraschino cherry (although we never see him toss a cherry in on-screen) – this would add a bit of extra liquid but would make the drink awfully sweet in the bargain.

1:27 – A curiously violent mixing technique – less of a stir and more of a brief tempest of thrusting with the spoon. Classic Draper.

1:37 – Bit of fruit tossed in haphazardly – it probably would be better to get some of the oils out of it, or on the rim of the glass, but points for (minor) effort.

Welp, he did it – our consummate gentleman made an excellent post-Prohibition Old Fashioned with most of the attendant mistakes (be grateful he didn’t muddle even more fruit in there). However, considering the setting of the show (1963 for this particular episode), his technique certainly could be considered true to the period. Pity, nevertheless.

Next time: Part 003 – A tale of two bouroughs – two recipes for a Manhattan.

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4 comments
  1. Anonymous said:

    I’m enjoying your posts. A bit uncanny though how the cartoonist’s style is so similar to yours. I was confused for a bit.
    Inspired by you, I went to buy a new jigger today, since mine had a bit of rust (obviously not stainless), and found that the unnamed store had jiggers that were 2 oz. and 1 oz.. My first thought was “is this another example of society becoming “biggied”(apologies to Wendy’s® ) like bigger airplane seats, redesigned furniture etc.”. But you covered that, that jiggers come in different sizes, other than the standard. Thanks for filling in another gap in my life long learning.
    Yer ol’ Gaffer

  2. Anonymous said:

    Oh, honey, just how much ARE you drinking? Ha ha!! Mom

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