Editor's Note: Please welcome Nick Caruana, who'll be sharing the stories of classic cocktails (and ideas for variations) in the coming weeks.
If you like making cocktails, I bet you probably have some vermouth lying around for that frequent occasional Manhattan or Martini. Sadly, outside of those drinks, your poor vermouth probably sits there lonely, wondering when it'll get a chance to shine...or at least be put in the fridge before it rots. This classic cocktail is the perfect way to put a dent in a few open bottles of vermouth before they get stale.
While it's unclear exactly who created The Old Hickory, Stanley Arthur's Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'em states that "according to hoary but unsubstantiated tradition" it was one of Andrew Jackson's favorites during his time in the Crescent City. Jackson was stationed in New Orleans for about a year during the Battle of New Orleans (1814-1815) and as legend has it, he liked this tipple so much it was named after him. Which begs the question: Why was Andrew Jackson called "Old Hickory?"
I thought you might ask.
The nickname dates back to around 1813, when Major General Jackson was short on supplies, and ordered to disband his troops. Rather than send his men out on their own with limited rations to make the trek home, he used personal money to obtain supplies and walked back with them on foot, having given up his horses to the sick troops. It was stubborn loyalty. Jackson also tended to strike up fights to preserve his honor. Many a brawl and even a few duels lead to a tough reputation—Mr. $20 came to be called 'Old Hickory' by his men, since hickory is one of the toughest kinds of wood.
While General Old Hickory was a tough character, The Old Hickory cocktail is an easy sipper, traditionally made with equal parts dry and sweet vermouth, stirred and served up with bitters and a lemon twist. The commercial ice business was just getting started during the early 1800s, so it's uncertain how chilled Jackson actually drank his namesake cocktail.
Mixing dry vermouth into sweet vermouth both lightens the drink and eases it away from sweetness, balancing the cocktail and giving smooth, mellow results. Just remember before you start mixing that since this classic is all about vermouth, you want to use one of decent quality and most important: a fresh bottle. Found an old bottle of vermouth in your closet from 1997? Not in this drink you don't.
The Old Hickory is rounded out with a few dashes of Peychaud's and orange bitters, and topped off with a lemon twist. The Peychaud's adds a bit of anise and spice, perking up the aroma, but it's the citrusy combination of orange bitters and the lemon twist really tie this one together, taking it from a balanced semisweet vermouth combo to something with much more depth and flavor. You could sip this all night...just promise me not to end up in a drunken duel, Jackson-style.
One of my favorite things about The Old Hickory is its versatility. You can treat the classic recipe as a blueprint but branch out from your standard sweet and dry vermouth. If you have other fortified wines or bitters on hand, go to town!
Try Cocchi Americano and Punt e Mes if you like it bitter. Try the newfangled American-made vermouths. Try Suze or Gran Classico. Try Madeira. Try sherry. Try port. Try Lillet. Just balance something dry with something sweet, and you'll likely have good results. Different aromatic and citrus bitters can be partnered in this drink for excellent results, too. Open your liquor cabinet: I bet many folks could make an Old Hickory variation tonight without a trip to the store. It's almost like a cocktail freebie.
My favorite distant variation on The Old Hickory Cocktail, brilliantly named The New Hickory Cocktail, goes like this: Instead of sweet vermouth, swap in Cynar. Instead of dry vermouth, use Manzanilla sherry. I know Cynar is not a fortified wine like sweet vermouth, but it is similar in proof and consistency, making it a great stand in; plus I love the earthy and vegetal flavors it brings to cocktail. Manzanilla sherry adds a crisp, dry, almost briny flavor that pairs really well with Cynar.
The sherry leads in this this rendition, and you can play with the bitters you use, but I find that a dose of Bittermens Burlesque bitters and Hopped Grapefruit bitters (plus a grapefruit twist) ties together this cocktail nicely.