Photographs by The Paupered Chef
The cocktail party is an estimable but endangered social institution. Its demise may be blamed on factors as various as the waning popularity of hard liquor, the regrettable decline of the sibling arts of conversation and flirtation, and the growing acceptance in this country of the European idea that dinner by itself is sufficient diversion for an evening. (The cocktail party, remember, is an American invention.) We steadfastly defend the cocktail party, however, both as an abstract notion and as an uncomplicated and extremely pleasant means of entertaining. The Joy of Cooking
Grandiloquent language and patriotic zeal: The normally tame and civil Joy of Cooking took us by surprise on the subject of cocktails. What is this strange "institution" they so valiantly defend, taking a break from casserole instruction and mayonnaise ratios to behave like literary theorists ("abstract notion"?)? Something distinctly American? Is the art of the cocktail a reason to feel patriotic?
Of course, the cookbook's authors are quite right: There aren’t many people who really have cocktail parties anymore, especially those under 30. Do you know many people with a stocked liquor cabinet? Anyone with a short wooden trolley that they roll around the corner from which they offer libations to visiting acquaintances? We’re no longer living in the world of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; these days, you text your friend to pick up a bottle of wine on the way. Who wants to invest hundreds of dollars on liquors and syrups, and buy limes and lemons at the grocery store every week? It’s not practical. The decline probably has less to with the "waning of the sibling arts" (whatever that means) and more to do with cold hard cash.
But the estimable subject of the cocktail, with all its mystery and refinement, is quite accessible, even without a stocked liquor cabinet and a copy of Bartending for Dummies.
The Old Fashioned. It has the ring of cool vintage, a controversial history for those interested, and a simple, refined, remarkable taste. It’s the drink to impress your friends, tossed together in a matter of seconds, and we think it has the potential to revive the skinny-tied, deviled-eggs-accompanied verve of the '60s cocktail hour. Manhattans are great, but everybody’s had them; Martinis are slick and sexy but overdone. When’s the last time you were offered an Old Fashioned? Not in this century, most likely.
The Old Fashioned is such an old drink that in its first documented appearance it's actually called "the old fashioned." It's also rumored to be the first cocktail, and even if it’s not, it acts as one. Modern American Drinks (1895) by George J. Kappeler gives us the first recipe for the "Old Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail," said to have been invented at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky: a simple combination of sugar, two dashes bitters, ice, and a lemon peel.
The clean appeal of this drink also happens to make it economical. A decent bottle of rye whiskey can run you anywhere from $15 to $30, but you can land a bottle of Rittenhouse (which we definitely recommend) for $15 if you’re resourceful. Most whiskey bottles are 750 ml, enough to pour 12.68 Old Fashioned cocktails. Add the cost of bitters, usually around $5 a bottle, and an evening of meticulously poured Old Fashioneds will cost about $20. The rest of the ingredients are kitchen standards you probably have on hand alreadysugar (and some water) and a couple of oranges. Buy a bottle of vermouth and you can give people the option of a Manhattan.
If you happen to be of the "let's get hammered" persuasion, consider that one Old Fashioned has almost twice as much alcohol as a Bud Light, meaning one bottle of whiskey at less than $20 has the same effect as a similarly priced case of beer. And everyone should be feeling more sophisticated and better about themselves because they weren’t forced to drink piss beer. That’s a plus.
We mentioned the controversial history, which mostly means everybody has their own opinion about how the drink is made. We can tell you one thing: Don’t dare use soda water. Some citrus, whether muddled in the glass, wiped on the rim, or infused in the bitters, can be included, but is not absolutely necessary.
In fact, what you prefer depends more on what your tolerance is for the taste of the hard stuff. Either way, the base for the Old Fashioned is sturdy and unwavering:
The Old Fashioned
1 teaspoon sugar
2 dashes bitters
A little water, just enough to dissolve the sugar
2 or 3 ice cubes
2 ounces whiskey
Combine the sugar and bitters in a glass (an Old Fashioned glass, if you’re that hip; a thick-bottomed tumbler will also do) with just enough water to wet the sugar. Muddle until combined. Add the ice, and the pour the whiskey over it. Stir. Done.
The first question is whether to use rye whiskey or Bourbon (please keep it American). The latter is made mostly from corn and will have a sweeter taste than the sharp kick of rye. Either one works, but we like to sip Bourbon and mix rye. Next comes the question of accessories.
Most recipes go for the straight, unadorned, no-citrus base, but almost half of those we surveyed had orange and lemon slices. Some even called for the orange to be muddled in with the sugar. Instead of engaging in meaningless wars about what a "true" Old Fashioned is, we bought some oranges, lemons, and a whole bottle of rye whiskey and decided to sort things out. Brave souls we are.
Our first experiment was with muddled orange and was essentially a disaster. We took a thin slice of the fruit and muddled it with the sugar and bitters. The sweet orange juice overwhelmed the drink, leaving it heavy and syrupy tasting. Over crushed ice, the drink might make for a refreshing summertime lounger or might please those who don’t really like the taste of whiskey.
Next, we slid a slice of orange and lemon into the drink after we had poured the whiskey. That gave it a nice hint of fruit without feeling cloying or obnoxious. In fact, it made the drink a little more refreshing, enhancing rather than hiding the whiskey. What you choose will ultimately depend on how you like your drinks. The fruit adds a touch more sweetness and rounds out some of the edge of the liquor. We stumbled on our favorite version using orange bitters and no other fruit. The unadorned drink is sharper, quicker, and neater. And for the record, we’ll always take the latter.
But that’s enough talk. These are matters of personal taste. And if you’ll please excuse us, we have more pressing concernsdo you take yours with an orange or not?
About the author: Collectively, Nick Kindelsperger and Blake Royer are the Paupered Chef. For more on frugal but flavorful dining, visit their blog, thepauperedchef.com.