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Old fashioned

The old fashioned is another of my favorite drinks. Whereas the margarita smacks of daytime and summer, the old fashioned is most at home on cooler nights. Happily both are good uses of quality tequila.

The old fashioned has a long history and is one of a few key drinks that can be traced as the source of the modern cocktail, back in the 19th century when drinks like newer drinks like the margarita had yet to be tasted. In fact, the old fashioned is so named because, when later variations were invented, it was already seen as the ‘old fashioned’ way to take strong alcohol with ice and bitters.

Like all the main cocktails, the old fashioned is a surprisingly simple combination of just a few well-chosen ingredients. Chief among them is whisky, or bourbon, but this can be substituted with most any characterful, aged, spirit — and tequila is a personal favorite. The whisky is made mellow by ice and water, ‘medicinal’ by the addition of bitters, sweet by sugar, and enticing by a garnishing twist.

At the time when the old fashioned was first fashioned, alcohol laced with bitters could still be drunk with a straight face as a morning tonic for medicinal reasons. Bitters were concoctions of herbs and other botanicals, thought to improve the constitution and cure all manner of ills. Drinking bitters with alcohol in the morning brought good health and fortified a man against the trials of the day.

Although an old fashioned can be made with a variety of spirits, bitters, sugars and twists, the basic method of preparation remains the same. A few dashes of bitters are added to sugar and water in the bottom of a low, glass tumbler with a heavy base, called an old fashioned glass for this reason. The bitters and sugar are mixed with a bar spoon, stirrer, or toddy stick.

Ice is then added to fill the glass. On top of the ice two shots, or around 50 ml, of spirit are poured. The ice and spirit are then stirred vigorously with a bar stirrer to chill the spirit and partially melt the ice. The water from the melted ice shouldn’t be underestimated and plays an important role in mellowing the drink. Since ice takes up less space once it is melted, more ice can often be added during stirring.

Finally a twist is added to flavor the drink. The citrus used for the twist is chosen to match the character of the spirit: orange is paired with mellow bourbons, lemon with whiskies, and lemon or lime with tequilas. It may look like mere garnishing, but the twist is vital and shouldn’t be left out.

Properly made, an old fashioned is a welcoming and drinkable mix of citrus, herb, spirit and barrel notes, sweetened but not overly sweet. It should be strong with alcohol but diluted enough to be readily approachable. It is a bit of a man’s drink by nature, but if you find it too strong then probably you need to stir it more, to dilute more ice, or else add a splash more water to the sugar and bitters at the start.

Since an old fashioned is basically a neat spirit in fancy clothes, it’s best to use a good quality one. That’s not to say you should throw in 20-year-old scotch, but you’ll definitely get better results with a good quality bourbon, for example, than with a well-known mass-market brand.

In my experience newcomers sometimes struggle with this drink. Casual cocktail drinkers and non-spirit fans, on the one hand, can find it too redolant of neat spirit. Whisky drinkers, on the other hand, have often been told never to mix whisky with water and ice, so take issue with the old fashioned from the outset. But those who can get past those preconceptions will discover one of the best cocktails ever made, and the basis of successful drinks for more than a century.