England & America (mid 18th century)
Pendennis Club, Kentucky (1888)
The Old Fashioned is essentially The Original Cocktail, with roots going back to the mid 1700s at least. Back in the day, it could’ve been any kind of booze (in Wisconsin, they still do this one with brandy). Bourbon respects the drink’s established Kentucky roots.
Bitters are what makes this drink. Research into their history by David Wondrich and Brad Thomas Parsons indicates the first known bitters were patented in London in 1712 as a cure-all tonic to help settle the stomach. Roots, barks, spices, dried fruit peel, flowers, and just about anything else was fair game to be tossed in the pot along with grain spirit (to extract their essential compounds). These bitters would be combined with white wine or brandy, often taken as a hangover cure. Around 1750 or so, someone came up with the idea of adding a bit of sugar and water to make the mix more palatable. As these things tend to go, this combination spread to Colonial America as not just a healthy quaff, but a recreational delight. The word “cocktail” was first used in print in by the Hudson, New York newspaper The Balance, and Columbian Repository in 1806 to describe this trendy little number as such:
“Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else.”
All drinks using this template were called “Cocktail” for years and years. It would’ve been “Rum Cocktail” or “Brandy Cocktail” or “Whiskey Cocktail.” As the 19th century marched along and all kinds of new drinks emerged with unique identifying names (Martinez, Manhattan, Martini), people came to ask for this original version as the “Old Fashioned” cocktail. The bar at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky helped standardize this name and recipe – specifying bourbon as the preferred spirit. As the century turned and Prohibition restricted access to “the good stuff,” people took to adding all kinds of adulterants to make the drink less awful: muddled oranges, cherries, lemons – even pineapple and mint on occasion. A drowning in seltzer was the final disgrace. And wouldn’t you know it, that formula stuck all the way through the next turn of the century, when people got their hands on copies of old 19th-century recipe books that called for the original, simple style of spirit, sugar, water (as ice) and bitters – with just a little hit of orange oil that perfectly unifies the caramel and vanilla of the bourbon with the holiday spices of the bitters.
Hardware: Jigger, Barspoon, Vegetable peeler or sharp knife
Ice: Ice rock or ice cubes
Glassware: Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Bourbon whiskey – overproof (100 or more) stands up well (recommended: Bulleit, Four Roses “Yellow Label”, Wild Turkey)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Rich simple syrup (2:1)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Angostura bitters, Orange twist, Orange wheel (optional), Cherry (optional) (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)
Using a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, cut a strip of orange peel to make:
1 orange twist
Don’t include too much of the bitter white pith, if any. Holding the twist with the outside facing down over an Old Fashioned glass, pinch to express orange oil into the glass. Reserve the twist for a garnish. Into the glass, add:
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1/4 oz rich simple syrup
Add an ice rock or two to three ice cubes then add:
2 oz bourbon whiskey
Stir briskly to blend and chill. Insert the orange twist as a garnish.
Some people like an additional orange wheel and cherry garnish, some say all that does is take away from the whiskey. As you like it.
Colonial America (1750-ish)
The Mint Julep: one that you’ve heard of, but maybe haven’t had properly. Most places make these with a packaged mix or mint syrup – for no good reason. Several ways exist for getting fresh mint into the whiskey, but there are masses of orthodox devotees preaching the time-honored muddling and ice-crushing technique that follows. Preparing this drink properly is a bit of a challenge and takes some skill. But you’re up for it, right?
Juleps as a style of drink go back farther than we have reliable records, as far back as 15th-century Europe, where a “julep” was a flavored sugar syrup mixed with medication. In Colonial America, mint juleps were first made with brandy, then whiskey as word got down south and stuck in Kentucky.
In an interview with Imbibe magazine, Chris McMillian, a fourth-generation bartender and local institution at New Orleans’ Kingfish, says the Mint Julep began as a wake & bake drink “in Virginia, where servants would bring them on silver salvers while you were still in bed. You would consume two to three juleps before arising, to fortify you against the malaise that was supposed to occupy the ether and make people sick.” I can’t imagine drinking three of these at any time of day, much less in the morning – our southern forebears were certainly made of stronger stuff. There’s also a great video of McMillian demonstrating his julep technique and reciting the following lovely bit of prose as he goes along. You don’t need to be as entertaining when making this for friends, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.
The Mint Julep
J. Soule Smith
In the Blue Grass land there is a softer sentiment — a gentler soul. There where the wind makes waves of the wheat and scents itself with the aroma of new-mown hay, there is no contest with the world outside. On summer days when, from his throne, the great sun dictates his commands, one may look forth across broad acres where the long grass falls and rises as the winds may blow it. He can see the billowy slopes far off, each heaving as the zephyrs touch it with caressing hand. Sigh of the earth with never a sob, the wind comes to the Blue Grass. A sweet sigh, a loving one; a tender sigh, a lover’s touch, she gives the favored land. And the moon smiles at her caressing and the sun gives benediction to the lovers. Nature and earth are one — married by the wind and sun and whispering leaflets on the happy tree.
Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.
The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips infant leaf into the same stream that makes The Bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, and the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. Like a woman’s heart it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside gurgling brooks that make music in the fields, it lives and thrives. When the bluegrass begins to shoot its gentle sprays towards the sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demands the wedding.
How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar till it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon – crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away – it is the sacrifice. Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed; no stirring allowed – just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find the taste and odor at one draft.
Then when it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant cold and sweet – it is seductive. No maidens kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream – it is a dream itself. No other land can give you so much sweet solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.
Hardware: Jigger, Muddler, Barspoon, Lewis bag, Straws (cut to size)
Ice: Crushed ice
Glassware: Old Fashioned glass or Julep cup
Spirits: Bourbon whiskey (recommended: Bulleit, Four Roses “Yellow Label”, Wild Turkey 81, Buffalo Trace)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Simple syrup
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Fresh spearmint
Using a Lewis bag, crush ice to a fine, even consistency by pounding with a muddler. In an Old Fashioned glass or Julep cup, add:
10 spearmint leaves
3/4 oz simple syrup
Muddle lightly, gently working the mint leaves and syrup around the interior of the glass. The key here is lightly – if you bust up the leaves, they’ll release bitter chlorophyll. The flavor you want is actually in the little fibers that coat the leaves. Fill the glass or Julep cup with crushed ice about three-quarters full, then add:
3 oz bourbon whiskey
Swizzle briskly to blend and chill, keeping the mint at the bottom. Mound additional crushed ice on top to form a dome. Garnish with a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the dome of ice to release its aromatic oils. Serve with two straws cut to size.
The Edison, Los Angeles, CA (2008)
There’s been a bit of a resurgence in punch these last couple years, led by two fronts. One is from craft bartenders wanting to make sure everyone in a crowded bar gets a quick drink when the line starts backing up. The other is David Wondrich, booze historian, and his fascinating book “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.” And for good reason: one of the simplest ways to make sure a large party is sufficiently quenched is with a big bowl of punch. Sure, it’s a bit of work upfront that you’ll need to plan far ahead for, but it frees you – the host – to kick back a bit when your guests arrive. They’ll serve themselves and gather around the punch bowl just like in Colonial times. Nice how some things never change!
This particular recipe comes from Marcos Tello, crafted during his stint at The Edison in Downtown Los Angeles. Of all the punch recipes I’ve tried recently, this one knocks the rest to the mat with one tap. Delicious, just strong enough, and perfectly balanced. Plus, you’ll pick up a fancy new word to bandy about: “oleosaccharum.” This is another place to use that batch of homemade grenadine you made – please don’t use that fake toxic-red shit.
Look for glass punch bowl sets at thrift stores or estate sales. You’ll find fantastic-looking vintage pieces, sometimes even complete sets with a dozen or more punch cups, edge hooks, and a ladle. I regularly see them in my area for under $20.
To maintain dilution when you serve your punch, you’ll want to hand-fashion a large block of ice instead of using ice cubes, which would melt too quickly…
Easy Ice: Find a freezer-safe bowl that fits well inside your punch bowl, with plenty of room for ladling around the edges. Fill the bowl with water and let freeze overnight. When ready, take the ice out, invert the bowl on the counter, and let it drop out (takes a few minutes).
Not-So-Easy (But Really Freaking Awesome) Ice: Fill a small Igloo lunch cooler with water and let freeze 36 hours. When frozen through, invert the cooler in the sink and let it thaw a bit, then slide out. It’ll take some time – but don’t worry, it’ll announce itself when it drops. You won’t miss it. Wearing protective gloves and using a bread knife, carefully carve away the slush and cloudiness at the bottom of the block to reveal a huge hunk of crystal-clear beauty. Round the corners by sawing and hacking, then shape the block to fit your punch bowl. When finished, you can store the block in a gallon Ziploc in your freezer until needed.
Hardware: Measuring cups & spoons, Muddler, Strainer, Slotted spoon
Ice: Ice block
Glassware: Punch bowl & punch cups (with ladle)
Spirits: Bourbon whiskey (recommended: Bulleit, Woodford Reserve, Buffalo Trace)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Lemon oleosaccharum, Grenadine, Champagne
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lemon juice, Angostura bitters
Peel from end to end, avoiding the bitter white pith:
Reserve peeled lemons for juicing. In the punch bowl, combine peels with:
10 tablespoons superfine sugar (not Confectioner’s / Powdered Sugar – run regular white sugar through a dry electric blender if you can’t get superfine)
Muddle well to abrade lemon peel and begin expressing zest oils into the sugar. Stir to combine and let sit at least one hour, stirring occasionally. It’s done when the sugar is no longer gritty and the lemon syrup is smooth and fragrant.
To the oleosaccharum in the punch bowl, add:
4 cups bourbon whiskey (works out to an entire 750 ml bottle plus more)
2 cups lemon juice (strained well to remove pulp and small seeds)
1 cup grenadine
8 dashes Angostura bitters
1 1/2 cups cold water
Stir to blend, then using a hand-held strainer or slotted spoon, remove the lemon peels, making sure they don’t bring any of that oleosaccharum with them. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. Just before your guests arrive, add the ice block and:
1 1/2 cups Champagne (about a quarter of a 750 ml bottle)
Stir to blend and then relax. You’re done.
MAKES 20 SERVINGS