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Editor's note: Robert O. Simonson is the author of "The Old Fashioned" and he writes about cocktails, spirits and bar culture for The New York Times as well as GQ, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Imbibe, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, and Time Out New York.
The thing to keep in mind about the Old-Fashioned - and the reason this drink keeps people fascinated, satisfied and frequently argumentative - is that it’s not just a great cocktail but that it’s also the cocktail. That is, it follows to the letter the blueprint for a category of drink - spirit, bitters, water, sugar - that was established more than two centuries ago.
That recipe structure, while as sturdy as steel, also happens to be endlessly welcoming of interpretation, embracing spirits well beyond the de rigueur whiskey. In fact, for a short period of time in the late-19th-century and early 20th century, a number of old cocktail books treated the Old-Fashioned not as a single drink, but as a branch of cocktails. (Gin Old-Fashioned, Brandy Old-Fashioned, etc.)
Today’s mixologists approach the drink with much the same mix of reverence and imagination, perfecting their ultimate expression of the classic drink with one hand, while messing around with the model with the other. The profit of this twin-minded attitude is that many of today’s cocktail menus include a classic Old-Fashioned for the purists and, for the curious, an in-house version that switches out the base spirit, the sweetener, the bitters and sometimes all three.
So, it you ever find yourself growing tired of the same old Bourbon or Rye Old-Fashioned (why this would happen, we can’t fathom), there are options. Try giving one of these differently spiritous iterations a spin.
5 Old-Fashioned variations for every spirit: Robert O. Simonson
2 ounces English Harbour 5-year-old
Mix the syrup and bitters at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass and add the rum. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lime zest over the drink and drop it into the glass.
2 ounces Bols barrel-aged genever
Muddle the sugar cube, bitters, absinthe, maraschino liqueur, curacao and a barspoon of warm water at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass until the sugar is dissolved. Add the genever. Stir. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of lemon zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
1 1/2 ounces El Tesoro reposado tequila
Combine all the ingredients except the orange twist in an Old-Fashioned glass filled with one large ice cube. Stir until chilled. Top with a flame orange twist: hold a piece orange peel about the size of a silver dollar, skin side down, over the drink. Light a match and use it to warm the skin side of the peel. Holding the match a few inches above the drink, quickly squeeze the peel in the direction of the match. The oil from the peel will briefly erupt into flame, showering its essence over the drink’s surface.
Scotch is a little too much of an Type-A-personality spirit to work and play well as a cocktail’s base spirit. But it can function in an Old-Fashioned, if you choose your brand carefully. Joaquin Simo’s Young Laddie - another Death & Co. creation - is a combo that works, largely owing to the selection of a no-to-smoky Islay Scotch and a double grapefruit assist.
2 ounces Bruichladdich “Rocks” Scotch whisky, or another single-malt Scotch that is not too smoky in character
Combine all the ingredients except the twists in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add one large chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a wide piece of orange zest and a wide piece of grapefruit zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
2 ounces Laird’s bonded applejack
Mix the syrup and bitters at the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass. Add the applejack. Stir. Add one chunk of ice and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
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