“What’s that you’re making?” the young woman sitting in front of me asked. Seeing how I had just made 10 different drinks, five of which were still in my hands, I didn’t answer immediately.
“That was a Manhattan,” I said when time and circumstance allowed.
“What’s in that?”
Involved as I was in making an old fashioned cocktail, I tried my best to describe a Manhattan at the exact same time I assembled the old fashioned.
“A Manhattan is a whiskey drink,” I said putting two splashes of two different bitters into the bottom of a mixing glass, “with sweet vermouth,” I continued while putting a splash of simple syrup in the mixing glass, “and sometimes bitters,” I said after adding the whiskey and ice, but before giving the drink a quick shake.
“It’s usually served in a martini glass,” I added before pouring the entire contents into a short, wide cylindrical glass known as an “old-fashioned glass.”
“But you didn’t put vermouth in that,” she said pointing at the old fashioned I had just made.
“That’s not a Manhattan,” I said garnishing the drink with an orange peel and a griottine cherry.
The old fashioned is appropriately named. It is one of the oldest cocktails known; in fact, some believe that the word cocktail was invented for this drink. That is, if you believe the folks at the Museum of the American Cocktail who cite an 1806 magazine, The Balance and Columbian Repository, that reads: “Cock tail, then in a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling.”
The name didn’t come along until almost 60 years later (old fashioned indeed!). Adding a rind of citrus fruit Professor Jerry Thomas recorded this version in his pivotal bar guide, 1862’s “Bon Vivant’s Companion” (the version famously made by Ryan Gosling’s character in 2011’s ‘Crazy, Stupid, Love.’) By the early 1930s several bar guides began including a slice of orange as well (some even included a slice of pineapple), but by the time the 1935 edition of “Old Mr. Boston’s Deluxe Official Bartenders Guide,” the standard recipe including the maraschino cherry had been solidified.
The Pendennis Club in Louisville is often cited as the place where the old fashioned was born;not true of course because the club opened in 1881 and clearly the drink existed long before that. However the Pendennis Club did make the drink popular (sort of like the mint julep and the nearby Kentucky Derby, or the Tequila Sunrise and the Trident, or the Buena Vista and the Irish coffee) and their recipe was the standard for 80 years. I remember travelling to the East Coast and ordering an old fashioned as a neophyte bartender. I thought I was all hipster cool back then. Bourbon, sugar, angostura bitters, orange and a maraschino cherry exactly like the ones I made 3,000 miles away.
For the next 25 years that was the way it was done. In the past few years, however, all that has changed. The old fashioned is now made many ways. Bourbon has given way to any kind of whiskey, dozens of various bitters are used sometimes even in combination, and sweeteners can run the gamut from agave to honey,to boutique sugars. Every up-and-coming mixologist has his or her own way of making it.
So where does that leave the consumer? Confused.
As a result I don’t order old fashioneds anymore. But then again I also don’t think I’m hipster cool, either.
“What’s that you’re making now?” the young woman asked.
I looked at the drink I was assembling and then back at her.
“That’s a Manhattan.”
“I thought you said they didn’t have vermouth in them.”
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• The more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know.
• Multi-tasking is often easier for the person doing it than for the person watching it. At least until he or she starts asking questions.
• “Not my favorite,” says Emma Stone’s character, wincing mightily in “Crazy, Stupid, Love” after quickly choking down two of Gosling’s old fashioneds. She does later make out with him, so there is that.
• In light of the old fashioned’s history, today’s versions ought to be called “newfangleds.”
• Young women can be an awful lot of work.