Lately, I've had to resort to picky douchebaggery when ordering Old Fashioneds in bars, just as when I order a martini. It's all the fault of the writers and producers of Mad Men, who wouldn't know a good Old Fashioned if it got spilled on their nuts.
We're not going to get into the martini thing again--just go read Caroline On Crack's excellent series on classic cocktails--but we are definitely going to talk about the bastardization of the world's original cocktail.
You see, Don Draper is doing to the Old Fashioned what James Bond did to the martini: ruining it. No one ever specifies the recipe, but you can see it; what Don Draper drinks is not an Old Fashioned. What Don Draper drinks is a fucking fruit salad with bitter whiskey sauce.
I've tried it that way more times than I can count with my shoes on and my fly up, and it sucks.
First, there are the cherries. Most bars use ice cream cherries, which are revoltingly sweet, falsely colored and soaked in almond-flavored, high-fructose corn syrup. If I wanted almond-flavored syrup (known as orgeat when it's made from ingredients we can pronounce) in my cocktail, I'd ask for a mai tai.
Even in bars that preserve cherries in bourbon or use the fancy Luxardo cherries, muddling a cherry in the drink gives it this cloying, rich taste that makes it impossible to take more than a few sips. Even throwing a cherry on a pick into the drink leaches that thick syrup into the drink.
Next, there's the orange problem. Most bars use a big, old wedge of orange and muddle the shit out of it, which presents a few problems; it dilutes the drink with orange juice, it releases bitter compounds from the white pith into the drink, and it smacks you in the nose when you tip the glass back.
Finally, there's the whole bitters thing. I had an Old Fashioned in Anaheim, where the staff used Peychaud's (it has to be Angostura; they taste completely different). I had an Old Fashioned in Fullerton where the bartender shook the bitters bottle as though it were on fire and used about four times too much. And then there was the bar in Burbank where the staff forgot to use any bitters at all. Two dashes, folks; three, if you regularly suck on alum à la Warner Brothers cartoons.
No, here is how I wish every bar made an Old Fashioned, which is based on Eric Alperin's (The Varnish) recipe adapted for home bars and with a little less bitters:
1. Muddle one cube (or a scant barspoon) of sugar with two dashes of Angostura bitters, a barspoon of seltzer water, and a long strip of orange zest (no white part). Don't overmuddle; if you split the zest, you muddled too hard. Fish out the zest with the barspoon.
2. Add 2 ounces of whiskey. I love my Old Fashioneds with Rittenhouse 100 rye, which has the alcoholic punch to stand up to the sugar in the drink, but really any rye or bourbon will do.
3. Add ice and stir briefly.
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4. Garnish with another twist of orange zest. You can swipe the outside edge of the glass with the outside of the peel, and then drop it in the drink.
That's it. Orange zest, bitters, sugar, seltzer, whiskey and ice. You'll be amazed how strongly the orange flavor comes through, while allowing the whiskey to shine. I agree with Eric and Caroline that this is a drink that requires several sips to become perfect, as the ice melts slowly.
Are you listening, Don Draper wannabes?