The Old Fashioned in a new era

The State of Oregon, in a perhaps questionable move, granted me my alcoholic beverage server’s permit in 2019. I had a chance to put it to use exactly once—serving up beer and wine at a Halloween costume ball, a benefit for our local animal shelter—before the lockdown descended and going to a bar became just one of many things we only used to do.

Undeterred, my fellow residents of Chateau Cuisine Stupide have resolved not to allow my mixology skills go down the drain. In addition to our longstanding regular Wednesday Wine and Cheese Night and our beloved Friday Martini Night, members of the household recently demanded a new, creative cocktail to celebrate the end of each weekend.

And the Sunday Special was born.

I decided to use the opportunity mostly to fill some gaps in my mixology education—acquainting myself with basic cocktails I’d somehow never made or even tasted, including as those in Michael Brunelle’s seminal Cocktails (still the only bar guide I’d need on a desert island, as long as said island had a decent liquor store). But once in a while, I decided, I’ll need to let myself go and try something new and even bizarre, like the concoctions featured regularly in Chilled magazine. (Stay tuned for something called a Lady Womp, a perfect Valentine’s Day cocktail.)

I started creating one-page study guides for my regular (and only) Sunday Special clientele, Chef Sin and her mom, detailing the history of each drink and how I made it. But it was a friend, the great musician Curtis Stigers, who suggested I share both the drink recipes and their back stories so that others could follow along each week.

So off we go. As of today, the Sunday Special goes virtual.

And there’s no better way to begin than with a libation whose very name declares its pedigree and status: the Old Fashioned.

The earliest drink that could reasonably be called a modern cocktail looked a lot like an Old Fashioned but wasn’t called that, for the simple reason that comingling booze, bitters, sugar, and other stuff was a new idea in the early 19th century. Over the ensuing decades, mixed drinks became more and more elaborate—until a bartender in Louisville, Ky., decided to get back to basics with a simple drink in the bygone style, one that would help sell more of an abundant local product: Kentucky bourbon. Or at least that’s the legend.

As Mittie Hellmich notes in the aptly titled Ultimate Bar Book, the Old Fashioned itself has gone through permutations of its own in the past 130-odd years, spinning off such elaborate variations as the Eccentric (with curaçao) and the Claremont (with muddled maraschino cherries). In recent years, though, the country’s best bartenders have elected to make the Old Fashioned old-fashioned again; the three top picks in the recent PUNCH Ultimate Old-Fashioned Contest are all variations on the whiskey-sugar-bitters formula, with the differences coming mostly in the types of spirits used.

Cuisine Stupide’s favorite version, too, sticks to the essentials: rye whiskey, a few dashes of Angostura bitters, and a bit of superfine sugar.

Even the orange garnish is optional—but hey, it’s Sunday. Celebrate.

Old Fashioned

Adapted from Paul Clark, Serious Eats

1 teaspoon superfine sugar
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces rye whiskey (we use Old Overholt)
Orange slice or twist for garnish (optional)

Combine sugar, bitters, and whiskey in a mixing glass or shaker. Add several large ice cubes and stir vigorously until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish if so inclined.

3 thoughts on “The Old Fashioned in a new era”

  1. When I was tending bar I would start with a sugar cube, splash it with Angostura bitters then crush it with that mini baseball bat they call a mull stick, add ice, and top it off with a shot of bourbon. During the 1970’s and early ’80’s, Old Overholt was the only rye available but nobody ever asked for it. I’m glad that rye has made a resurgence (and thank me for resisting a pun there), there are some very goods one available, my favorite is right now is Rittenhouse. Some bartenders would mull the orange slice into the sugar and bitters, which on retrospect made it more of an ingredient rather than garnish.

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