A janitor’s advice on Classic Cocktails

I was recently offered the opportunity to pontificate about Classic Cocktails for Colorado’s first Distillers Festival, sandwiched between Rob Masters of Boulder Distillery/303 Distilling (and President of the Colorado Distillers Guild) and Rob Dietrich the newly appointed master distiller of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.  I excitedly accepted, understanding that someone needed to take up some time to give people a chance to duck out and use the WC or to grab a new sample between these two heavy weights.  We’re expecting a write-up later on the guided gin tasting and seminar on barrel ageing (expect many jokes about depth of wood, penetration, and curvature to the left). I thought I would scratch down a few of my own thoughts on the cocktails that I spoke about, as well as my own thoughts on classic cocktails.

Colt and Gray

It  is always necessary to have a working definition of what exactly a “classic” cocktail is.  There’s usually a time element involved; classics tend to come from pre-prohibition or have their roots firmly entrenched in that period.  While a time element is interesting to me, one of my defining characteristics of a classic cocktail is its ability to be replicated in a vast majority of bars.  Pretty much every bar in Denver is capable of serving a proper Old-Fashioned or Manhattan cocktail; most don’t due to a lack of education, a lack of motivation, or a lack of the public demanding classics and holding us to a higher standard. Classics are simple, often only 2 or 3 ingredients, most are readily available, and should be easily made in any bar.

The first drink I tackled was the Improved Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail.  It would have seen its heyday circa 1880 or so, right before Vermouths became the HOT ingredient in mixology. The name Old-Fashioned refers to a drink that was 80 years old already at the time. The bittered sling circa 1806, or original cocktail (sugar, bitters, spirit, water) and the “Improved” moniker would imply that this drink would be sweetened with a liquor or cordial rather than directly with sugar.  In your best old-timey voice think in your head, “give me a whiskey drink, old-fashioned style, improve it with Curaçao”. This drink as written could be made in a biker bar, the Lancer Lounge, Rock Bar (RIP), or even from the leanest of hotel banquet bars. It is, without a doubt, a classic. Here’s the spec, try it out next time you’re at your local: whiskey on the rocks, splash of Grand Marnier and bitters.

At Colt & Gray we refer to this style of cocktail as “Gilding the Lilly”. Out of respect for not fucking up perfectly decent spirits, sometimes all they need is a light touch of liquor/bitters to be slightly re-invented in the glass. The beauty and classic nature of this drink rests in the infinite variations it could inspire.

Improved Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail

Glass: Old-Fashioned
Garnish: Lemon Twist (optional)

  • 2.0 oz of decent whiskey, something you would drink on the rocks. For the distiller’s fest we made it rain with Stranahan’s.
  • 0.25 oz Grand Marnier, one could substitute several liquors here for GrandMa.
  • 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters, absolutely essential. If the bar you are drinking in doesn’t have bitters, order beer. If they have several Bitters on draft, try Fuller’s, also a classic.

About Kevin Burke

Kevin is an occasional barman and fulltime practitioner of the Janitorial Arts at Colt & Gray.

  • Josh Rapp

    I remember loving the speech but not much else. Thanks for putting this down in writing to jog my memory!