You could have heard a cocktail umbrella drop. It was like a saloon in a Western wet dream, in which I was the outlaw who’d uttered the forbidden word, silencing the crowd. Patrons nervously glanced over at the tattered photograph of me on the wall. They knew me in these parts. They knew what I was capable of. I’m the man who drinks bourbon while observing the stirring of other bourbon. I’m the man with no name. It’s easier that way, because when I’m three sheets to the wind it saves me the trouble of remembering it.
“What do you want?”, yelled the sheriff. I turned to face up to the law. As I met his gaze, the premise really started to wear thin, so I paused the Ennio Morricone playlist and started being marginally more sensible. I was on a bar stool in my usual Old Fashioned dispensary, the House bar in central Oxford. It was true that I’d said something to surprise Alan, a regular architect of my intoxication. Tonight I was going rogue. I threw down the gauntlet. With a fiver set aside to purchase late-night Levantine cuisine, and the coins tucked away to secure a homeward vessel for post-hummus passage to the sticks, I actively sought to put my faith to the test. Under my scrutiny, Alan was going to make me two cocktails with the express intention of ruffling my feathers and inducing apostasy.
I was on the other side of the embargo. Kentucky this was not.
With the entrenched liturgy called to mind, I sized up my first opponent. Looks were nothing to go on; in dim bar light I could have mistaken it for my usual. At the sip, the stars and stripes were violently tugged from beneath me to reveal that I was on the other side of the embargo. Kentucky this was not. Neither was it the rum of a British colony, pairing with the sweetness of the orange, rather than a citrus bite, to burst forth, like a liquid Columbus blustering accidentally into my surprised, America-attuned tastebuds.
He planted the flag, but didn’t stick around, leaving me and my palate to ponder the provenance of the colonialist. Drifting back to the Old World, lingering fruit was replaced with an aromatic bitterness. Like the explorer’s Aragonese patron, Ferdinand, battling north against French advances, it rose from the melange to settle me back in Italy. The vermouth brought a brief smile to my face, before I was hit by my first real shock. There was an undeniable hint of Campari, a ghastly concoction, which regularly fights Pernod for first place amongst beverage masochists. Yet I was enjoying it. In context, I’d found some spice to excite my vanilla. As it turned out, when I enquired about the ingredients, the culprit was in fact Aperol, Campari’s rather similar but sweeter sister; she takes the same idea and tones it down a little, staying on the legal side of the 2014 Audiovisual Media Services Regulations.
Preconceptions about herbal horrors had been challenged by the first contender, revealed to be an Andy Garcia, which is listed at the Duke of Cambridge, the bar’s twin establishment further north in town, as their signature take on the piracy-meets-Piedmont genre which seems to have a number of extant candidates, with none canon.
I glanced at the bourbon shelf, ominously undisturbed. I felt like such a naughty boy.
Frantic note-taking ensued, but, while still relatively sure of myself, I was careful to keep an eye on the second salvo. The duration of preparation was worrying. With every meticulous stir my fears were hammered home. It was an Old Fashioned I saw before me, but it was an unnatural, twisted creature. A great weight sank from neck to nether regions as I glanced at the bourbon shelf, ominously undisturbed.
Steeling myself, I asked for a glass of water to reset the mouth, and then drank. Oh, have mercy. Licking liquor from lips, I glanced nervously around, self-conscious at the sweet, indecent goings-on in my mouth. It was all over too quickly, but I felt like such a naughty boy. Sitting there passively, I’d received an unexpected kiss, and though I’d never admit it, I was blushing and secretly wanted another.
Pulling myself together and giving the temporary teenager the boot, the rationality returned and I turned to the other components. The classic bitters were there, but they faded just a little too soon for my liking. Similarly, with the sweet spectrum dominated, the orange peel felt a little washed out. It’s not the sharpest citrus by any stretch, so couldn’t cut through like some of its peers might (which is not at all to suggest that they should have been involved). All but one of the parts of the Old Fashioned were there, but I’m not sure it really was one. With the false rum idol displacing Biblical bourbon, the result was something seductive, for sure, but it wasn’t my baby. I was powerless to resist the El Dorado 15, and in that moment it was love, but where my preferred poison would have stayed with me, the Demerara temptress had blown my mind only to leave me bereft and stop returning my calls.
As I write about the pretenders to the throne, there’s whiskey in my glass.
At this point the metaphor and the reality merged at that inescapable point in the universe – back on the bar stool, empty glass in hand. Grounded once more, I made eye contact with the Maker’s Mark. Adding an ice cube to the double, Alan placed it in front of me with a smile, and got to stirring the Woodford Reserve for my return to the mother church. I couldn’t be truly corrupted. The verdict is confirmed now; as I write about the pretenders to the throne, there’s whiskey in my glass.
As in the mind of every sinner who has strayed, though, the memory remains – and the distance and difference from the orthodoxy only improves it with age. I love the Old Fashioned, and I shan’t renounce it any time soon, but the questioning corner of my psyche will most likely lead me to further inadmissible exploits rather sooner
The Andy Garcia consists of Martini Rosso, Havana Club Anejo Especial, Aperol, and a slice of orange.
The so-called rum “Old Fashioned” was El Dorado 15, brown sugar, Angostura bitters, a dash of soda, and that all-important orange peel
As I have mentioned before, I don’t believe in numbers when it comes to cocktails. Get mixing, get tasting, get it perfect eventually.