When it comes to cocktails, the granddaddy of them all is definitely the Old-Fashioned. The Old-Fashioned cocktail in its simplest form defines the original meaning of the word “cocktail”: A drink composed of a spirit, sugar, water and bitters – a definition that dates back to the early 1800s. Any drink made with these simple ingredients was made in the “old-fashioned” style. And – for those who are looking for endorsements to drink any time – the original cocktails were meant as “morning drinks” – one way to get the blood moving.
History of the Old-Fashioned
In the past, you could use any spirit in an old-fashioned drink, including rum, gin, or scotch. As the cocktail culture matured, however, the Old-Fashioned cocktail was symbolized by four main ingredients:
- 1 Sugar Cube
- 3 dashes of Bitters
- 0.5 oz Water (or club soda in certain places)
- 2.25 to 2.5 oz Whiskey (generally American whiskey like rye or bourbon)
Of course, twists have been added to these original ingredients over the years: the addition of muddled fruit like oranges and cherries. According to David Wondrich, the addition of the fruit can be traced back to Jack Townsend, the former head of the Bartenders Union of New York, Local 15, A.F.L. One reason for the added fruit was Prohibition. Liquor that could be obtained during this time wasn’t very good – or even legal to make except for medicinal purposes. Sugar, fruit, and other ingredients were used to mask the taste of the bad booze. While the liquor improved, the fruit didn’t go away.
Purists, however, tend to stick to the “original” style, but may add a cherry or lemon twist as a garnish. For many people’s tastes, the muddled fruit makes the drink too sweet or takes away from its simplicity.
If you do want to add some fruit, remember there is a huge difference between real Marasca-based cherry garnishes and the standard, off-the-shelf maraschino cherries. The former are made from simple ingredients that only enhance the original cherry flavor. The latter, however, is hardly a cherry at all. It’s an overly manufactured “cherry-like” garnish removed of its original color, soaked in a sweetened mixture for a month and filled with added bright red coloring. (Try Luxardo Gourmet Maraschino Cherries to know how garnish cherries are supposed to taste.)
How to Make an Old-Fashioned
Now that you know the ingredients and history, it’s time to make your own. Place your sugar cube in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned or Rocks glass. Add three dashes of bitters – most industry professionals recommend Angostura bitters – and the water. Muddle until the sugar cube dissolves. Add the whiskey and ice. Stir with a bar spoon. Optional: add garnish.
As mentioned earlier, the original “old-fashioned” could be made with practically any spirit. Cocktail bars across the country have been experimenting with different base spirits to create some pretty interesting Old-Fashioneds. Recently, this author had a barrel-aged Rum Old-Fashioned that was sweeter than the whiskey-based one. This could be a good starter boozy drink for cocktail newbies. Other versions include Mezcal, Tequila and Brandy. Experiment with different whiskies, and then start mixing in some other spirits to see how they affect the overall taste of the drink.
Brands to Try
Try one of these brands in your Old-Fashioned home-version:
- Rittenhouse Rye 100
- Bulleit Rye
- Buffalo Trace
- Woodford Reserve
Where to Find the Perfect Old-Fashioned in Denver
The Usual Suspects
Not surprisingly, you can find great Old-Fashioneds at some of the city’s best cocktail bars.
The Denver speakeasies are renowned for their great cocktails so one of these three would be the place to begin your search for the perfect Old-Fashioned: Williams & Graham (3160 Tejon Street. (303) 997-8886); Green Russell (1422 Larimer Street. (303) 893-6505) and the newest Ste. Ellie (below Colt & Gray, 1553 Platte Street. (303) 477-1447). With great bartenders and excellent selections of spirits, one of the Old-Fashioneds from these bars is bound to hit the spot.
Steuben’s Restaurant is a local favorite and for good reason. It’s got great food, great drinks and great atmosphere. But do yourself a favor if this is on your Old-Fashioned list: make a reservation. Steuben’s is usually full no matter what night you go there. 523 East 17th Avenue. (303) 830-1001.
Acorn is another newbie, opening at the Source, a former late 1800s foundry turned marketplace. The atmosphere is just what you’d expect: a mixture of rustic and modern. The bar at Acorn is not terribly large, but they have an amazing patio, where you can sip your freshly-made Old-Fashioned. 3350 Brighton Boulevard. (720) 542-3721.
The Unusual Suspects
Vesper Lounge is a “classy dive bar”, attracting a very mixed crowd who come for the beer, Mediterranean food, and cocktails. Vesper has an Old-Fashioned on draft, which makes for a very interesting experience. 233 East 7th Avenue. (720) 328-0314.
The Black Pearl Restaurant has been an Open Table Diner’s Choice award winner. A favorite amongst foodies, Black Pearl also has a reputation for creating some amazing cocktails. A friend said that their version of the Old-Fashioned was his favorite in town. 1529 South Pearl Street. (303) 777-0500.
Star Bar falls into the upscale dive category with its main bar and back patio. Their version of the Old-Fashioned is a bit sweeter and probably less intimidating than the traditional boozy cocktail. It’s made with splashes of tart cherry, maraschino and orange liqueurs. 2137 Larimer Street. (720) 328-2420.