A proper cocktail is artisanal. The fluorescent, fruity, frothy glassfuls filling happy hour menus have their place, but these brash combinations of booze, syrups, spices, which wear the length of their ingredient lists as badges of pride, or perhaps false promises of affordable inebriation, are not of the same ilk.
Many a mixture might satisfy the sweet tooth, sport whimsical garnish, and exude an aura of a night ready to go wrong, but they are of a species far removed from the Proper Drink. Not that I have anything negative to say about nights gone wrong after flamboyant modes of alcohol consumption – I can scarcely remember a single one – but a real cocktail is a glass stage upon which a respected player shines with the help of well-cast supporting roles, not the umbrella-adorned beverage equivalent of the latest Stomp matinee.
My rule of thumb is that, while a properly executed cocktail must naturally make adjustments to the purest end of the drinking spectrum – straight alcohol in a glass – any deviations must be considered, conservative, and absolutely necessary. Paradoxically, the only way to discover where the optimum level of interference lies is through experimentation.
Drinks will disappoint you. That is a sad truth. But you’ll quaff the imperfect results and life will go on; encouraging intuition through attempt and failure will yield bountiful results in the long term. No craftsman learns his skill overnight. The media is riddled with recipes, each purporting to be the “perfect” rendition of the chosen cocktail, but every one contains decimal points and metric units; I stop reading and run a mile in the opposite direction (if that happens to be the way to the bar).
My intoxicating downfall is the venerable Old Fashioned, a drink which has seen a resurgence in popularity from near-disappearance, no doubt prompted by the mid-20th century fantasy entertained by every aspiring Don Draper. Pick up a menu in any trendy watering hole, and be prepared to see a heftily priced offering, deep into the premium pages, well past the fruit salads. The Old Fashioned is a monument to timeless class, even if its popularity needed an injection of televised workplace sexual harassment to jump start it.
The prescriptive and competitive scramble to define a perfect mixing method, however, is quite the opposite. I half expect to see tabulated nutritional information and the odd E-number listed alongside the latest alcoholic algorithm, and yet, for all the specificity, sometimes the main ingredient is not described as anything but plain old “Bourbon”, any bottle will do.
The other end of the spectrum exists too, and can seem equally silly. Of course, I have my preferred preparation method – brown sugar, generous spurts of Angostura bitters from that restricted but still violent cap, a dash of the juice from a jar of maraschino cherries, a brutally stabbed sliver of orange peel, to help coat the bottom of a large glass with a film of viscous sweet, sharp, and bitter, followed by the gradual whiskey and ice construction – but sometimes reading a cocktail menu I start to think I’m in a Marks and Spencer Christmas food ad.
If Kinsey had been studying this human preference, I would sit happily in the middle of the scale. I’m quite content to float seductive adjectives around my head, but it must be the drink, not the paper I order it from, which does the talking. As for argumentatively setting the prerequisites in stone, it is a little like demanding the creation of a universal sauce for all types of meal – quite, quite mad, and probably doomed to converge upon the Heinz ketchup of the drinking world.
The flavours which turn the whiskey into an Old Fashioned might be first into the glass but they are the last thing on my mind. The bourbon and ice, to be carefully added and delicately stirred afterwards, are of the utmost importance.
The production methods of Kentucky’s distilleries are the one thing in this cocktail you cannot change, so the choice of Bourbon is the natural starting point. For all the bitterness over bitters I’ve read, the soda water sarcasm, and rage over the propriety of peel, where is the appreciation of our top-billed star? I tend to gravitate towards Woodford Reserve due to its general availability behind the bar, but our corn-mashing friends from the South have a wealth to offer, so overlook the variety at your peril.
Now we can move to the mixing. The complexity of the Old Fashioned is in the patience, the repeated tasting of the mixture to inform the next move. It is quite the therapeutic experience. Even to watch. My modus operandi is to have an amuse-bouche (usually a glass of straight Bourbon) while I observe the crafting of a unique, subjective, and personal creation in front of me, as if I were munching popcorn in a cinema seat.
With no other drink order have I invariably been sincerely asked for feedback, nor witnessed my responses at work as the next is made to better suit my tastebuds. This is neither the working of an automaton following instructions, nor a florid display of style over substance. The style is born of the substance, both in the making and the tasting, the eye-contact held while the recipient takes a sip, considers it, and smiles in recognition of the artisan’s work. If necessary, when making them at home, I use the bathroom mirror.
This is a proper cocktail, a real drink. This Bourbon cocktail is minimal and aged. Broken down scientifically, it’s booze in a glass, with a few minor flavourings; indeed, most of the best cocktails are. It’s hardly an indictment. The Old Fashioned doesn’t belong nestled on the drinks list between Tiffany lamps and kaleidoscopic, colour-by-numbers crowd-pleasers. It belongs in Florence, next to its true peer, which, analytically-speaking, might just be a big old block of calcium carbonate with some bits chipped off, but moonlights as Michelangelo’s David.