The Mix: The Always-in-Style Old Fashioned
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The Mix: The Always-in-Style Old Fashioned

How to mix a cocktail that withstands the test of time.

Illustration by David Nuff.

“Pleasure to meet you, Don…helluva cocktail.” A crisp parting exchange between a gentlemanly hotel tycoon to a charming advertising executive in a television show that will remain unnamed, for fears this column will have mentioned it in the opening lines of each of its first two outings.

If you follow the show, you will know that shortly after, the aforementioned executive’s firm lands the extremely lucrative Hilton account. The not so subtle message? Learn to mix a good drink, and you will have the admiration (and business) of the elite.

The Old Fashioned is a great place to start, being simultaneously respectable and basic. That said, we live in the age of the artisan, the craftsman, the innovator, and while there’s always room for a classic, we’ll be damned if we can’t blowtorch, flash-freeze, or otherwise improvise our way to glory. The Old Fashioned has put on new clothes, but as with fashion, the future often looks a lot like the past. Variations may have come in and out of style like waxy moustaches, but the core elements of this drink remain as timeless as a well-cut suit.

The addition of something as trivial as a splash of club soda is either sacrilegious or inspired, depending on whom you ask. The current generation of bartenders of mixologists are finding ever more creative ways to tinker with the classic recipe without upsetting us all, but this isn’t new at all. In fact, the cocktail owes its name to this very issue…

As mentioned last month, back in the 19th century, the word “cocktail” had a very simple, very clear meaning: a bit of hooch, and just enough water, sugar and bitters to take the edge off it. It’s what some people might call a bittered sling. Over time, bartenders began to experiment with just about everything you could mix into a drink, and the fruity, soda-topped, blended and umbrella wearing versions that you remember (or don’t) from your all-inclusive in Cancun were introduced.

As more adventurous cocktails came into popularity, the more puritanical drinkers started requesting their drinks be made “the old fashioned way”. Soon, it became a status symbol. A 1920 Old Fashioned could have contained practically any spirit, from gin to cognac. The fact that we associate the drink with whiskey now probably owes its place in history to the mid-century popularity of whiskey in America.

Oddly enough, the very things fans of the Old Fashioned originally tried to escape soon started creeping back into the drink. The cocktail Don Draper makes in that scene—much like his workplace behaviour—is definitive of the era, with a liberal pour of soda and muddled fruit.

While the austere classic lives on today, perhaps more celebrated than ever, there are celebrated variants as far as the eye can see. Martha Stewart has introduced us to Daniel Boulud and Xavier Herit’s “New-Fashioned”, with its hints of vermouth and maple, and perfectly spherical ice. Gabrielle Geiselman recently shared her spicy, gingery, seasonally appropriate take, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”.

You don’t have to cross the border to get in on the fun—you can enjoy a new-fangled Old Fashioned right her in Toronto. At Byblos (11 Duncan Street), cardamom-infused Turkish bitters lend the house special Old Fashioned a complex, aromatic haze. While making a cocktail in bulk and serving it “on tap” might seem an odd decision, it accounts for a consistency you’ll fully appreciate once you’ve downed your first and want the exact same again.

Meanwhile, Black Hoof’s aptly named Cocktail Bar (923 Dundas Street West) throws convention completely out the window with their shimmering Gold Fashioned. Featuring ingredients such as buttered popcorn brandy and cherry cola (yes, really), this will really hit the spot for the sweet-toothed among us.

Here’s a riff on the Old Fashioned with grapefruit and basil replacing the classic orange-cherry garnish. Torontoist frequently enjoys this Oaxaca-style (with tequila instead of whiskey):

2 ounces bourbon or rye Whiskey
3/4 ounce simple syrup (or a cube or teaspoon or sugar)
2 dashes each aromatic and orange bitters
1 grapefruit peel
a splash (about 1/4 ounce) club soda or water
1 leaf fresh basil
1-2 cubes ice (bonus points for one giant cube)

You can either mix this in a mixing glass and transfer to an old-fashioned tumbler for consumption, or, for practicality and speed, make it right in the tumbler. Either way, it’s not a bad idea to stick your glass in the freezer for a few minutes.

If using “dry” sugar, start by dissolving it in the bitters and water. Add the whiskey and ice, and give the whole thing a nice stir.

Take the grapefruit peel and give it a squeeze over the drink, then rub it around the rim of the glass, to get some of those oils in. Do the same with the basil leaf (with a softer touch, you don’t want to completely crush it). If you have cocktail sticks, skewer both for garnish, otherwise, just place them in the drink.