Welcome to the “secret” second page of Old Fashioned 101. If you haven’t spent some quality time with the first page, you’d best do so now or you’re just asking for trouble.
In this addendum, I delve into variations on the Old Fashioned and the use of base spirits other than bourbon and straight rye, a topic over which a few folks have their knickers in a twist.
Hollands Gin & Brandy
If David Wondrich is right—I hope he is—the original Cocktail was most commonly made with either genever (often called Hollands Gin by 19th Century Americans) or Brandy. If you wish to go really “old school” and explore the Old Fashioned with the ingredients it was most commonly made with before it was known as the “Old Fashioned”, you have a problem. Your problem is that the early 19th Century versions of these spirits were different than today’s: genever was a botanically-spiked, malty, somewhat-whiskey-like pot still liquor whereas today it’s stretched with 50–90% grain spirits, not to mention largely unavailable in most markets. Cognac and brandy was, if nothing else, considerably more potent than the 40% ABV that is almost universal today. It turns out these differences matter. In practical terms, here are your options:
Over many years and through considerable effort, your author has accumulated an array of varied recent Dutch genevers. As much as I love and admire these spirits, I must regretfully report they do not generally lend themselves to the Old Fashioned. Simply put (for the details would fill their own essay) Hollands Gin has evolved in several different directions over the last 150 years, all divergent from its early 19th Century marriage with the Cocktail. However, there is good news as well: in 2009, the Netherland’s largest genever producer, Lucas Bols, introduced a new genever product in the United States (since added in many other markets) sold in a gray-tinted glass bottle and simply entitled “Bols Genever” (42% ABV). This new product—dubious marketing claims aside—is formulated with an eye toward mixed drinks (back to the future) and does make a nice Old Fashioned. Even better, in 2019, a new pair of Dutch genevers arrived under the brand Old Duff. Both of these genevers are highly suitable to mixing Old Fashioneds, but I would particuarly draw your attention to the 100% Maltwine expression: it is exceptionally delicious, and represents the complete return of the essence of genever.
Regarding brandy: let us, for once, be honest about the grape. Yes, grape brandy is useful and posesses a generally agreeable flavor. Yes, in the hands of the skilled blender, rarified aged grape spirits can deliver (along with a rarified purchase price) an immensely deep and refined sensory experience. But let’s also admit that today’s grape brandy—mixologically speaking—is weak sauce. For one thing, the finer aromatics of good brandy are quickly buried by other ingredients, leaving that generic “brandy flavor” but not much else from the featured spirit. For another, most of today’s brandy that is priced for mixing exhibits a remarkable alcohol burn. While that burn might seem to make brandy a good candidate for an Old Fashioned—recall that the Old Fashioned adds sugar (and water) in part to tame the abrasiveness of the spirits—the flavors of today’s brandy (Cognac, Armagnac or others) that you seek are already tame enough. You can mitigate that burn, but at a cost. So, while you certainly can make an Old Fashioned with any of these brandies, you will probably be at least a little disappointed with the results. As of this writing, you have two avenues for optimization: Louis Royer Force 53º High Strength VSOP cognac (53% ABV) and Pierre Ferrand “1840 Original Formula” Grande Champagne Cognac (45% ABV). These two cognacs possess stronger spines, and the latter is a deliberate attempt to reproduce the three-star cognac of the 19th Century that would have been so at-home in the mixed drinks of the era.
The Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned
For decades, the good people of the State of Wisconsin have ardently maintained a regional drink they call the “Old Fashioned”. This Wisconsin specialty is not an Old Fashioned at all, it’s a sort of single serving punch. To their credit, you can reliably order this concoction just about anywhere in the state, which is more than can be said anywhere in the world about the actual Old Fashioned. For our purposes and to avoid confusion, we will delicately term this drink the “Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned”.
The Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned varies in small ways from establishment to establishment, but holds allegiance to muddling the fruit portion of an orange slice and a cocktail cherry until they form a paste, adding a jigger of Korbel brandy, adding ice, and then diluting this slurry by topping it with flavored soda water. “Sweet” or “sour” can be specified, which indicates what sort of soda—depending on availability—the bartender will employ. For a careful deconstruction (and reconstruction) of this drink, we will refer you to articles by Mr. Robert Simonson and Mr. Jeffrey Morgenthaler. If this is your kind of drink, bless you. If not, please exercise caution when ordering an Old Fashioned at any Wisconsin bar.
Prohibition (1919–1933) had many consequences, one of which was accustoming law-flouting United States citizens to Canadian whisky. Another was making Seagram Company LTD of Quebec, for a time, the largest alcoholic beverage distiller in the world. While the end of Prohibition put bourbon and straight rye promptly back into production, these American whiskies would spend several decades playing catch-up to the Canadians. Well into the 1990s, if you requested an Old Fashioned nearly anywhere in the United States, there was a good chance you’d be served a catastrophe in a glass containing, amongst other things, some Seagrams whisky. So, at the very least, a historical case can be made for permitting Canadian whisky in an Old Fashioned.
But, what is Canadian whisky? Well, Canadian whisky is whisky made in Canada.
This answer is not an attempt at humor. Rather, it points up the identity crisis that afflicts the category today. Whatever it was they once made that put Canadian whisky on the map and even earned decades of hegemony over the term “rye”, they don’t do it much any more. Today, the vast majority of Canadian whisky is distilled from corn with small amounts of wheat and/or rye spirits added for component flavor. Most bottle labels won’t actually tell you much about the contents, although you can probably count on the spirit being barrel aged at least three years. The mainstream Canadian whisky products tend to be cheap, light-bodied, bland and undifferentiated, and will make for a bland, but basically functional Old Fashioned. A few new Canadian producers are challenging the current convention with more interesting (and more expensive) products, but these remain few and far between. Experiment, if you must.
The Sazerac is a venerable late-19th Century drink from New Orleans that derives from the same Cocktail ancestor as the Old Fashioned. The two drinks are separated by many stories, controversies and traditions, but only a few essential practical details. A well-made Sazerac is as sublime a drink as has ever existed.
There are several ways to assemble a Sazerac, some border on the fetishistic. Here we will simply build on what we’ve already established in Old Fashioned 101. You will make an old fashioned, but with three differences:
First, you will coat the inside of the glass you will drink from—preferably a rocks glass—with a splash of absinthe or pastis. Roll the glass to coat the entire interior of the vessel and discard any excess. Pretty much any French, Swiss or American absinthe will do nicely. Pastis is an anise liqueur specifically formulated as a stand-in for absinthe. Prominent examples of pastis are Pastis 51, Pernod, and Ricard. Any pastis will do nicely. Actually, Herbsaint, a delightful pastis from New Orleans, is the ideal choice for the Sazerac.
You will use straight rye. You will not use bourbon. (Nor shall you use Cognac, but that is a whole other can of worms.)
You will use Peychaud’s Bitters. Accept no substitute.
Again, the use of ice is optional. Most people stir their Sazerac with ice and strain it into the absinthe-coated glass. Follow your bliss. A lemon twist is a highly desirable finishing touch.
In Old Fashioned 101, I hinted a couple times at worthwhile variations on the Old Fashioned. Here are three excellent examples:
Rum Old Fashioned
Build in an Old Fashioned Glass.
1 splash of filtered sugar cane syrup, brown sugar syrup or simple syrup, to taste.
1 dash of Angostura bitters.
1 measure of aged brown rum (Diplomatico Reserva is a good example)
1 chunk of ice (optional).
Garnish with an orange twist.
The Oaxacan Old Fashioned
Build in an Old Fashioned Glass
1 tsp agave nectar
1 ½ oz Reposado Tequila
½ oz Mezcal
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Add a big chunk of ice (optional)
Garnish with a flamed orange twist.
(from Phil Ward, Mayahuel, NYC)
Gin Old Fashioned
Build in an Old Fashioned Glass
1 splash of sugar syrup, to taste
1 dash of bitters (this is a great opportunity to experiment with different bitters)
1 measure of old tom gin or dry gin (Ransom Old Tom Gin is a great choice)
Garnish with an lemon twist.
—Martin Doudoroff, 2012 (mildly updated in 2020)