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A defense of the cocktail, and a guide to the old fashioned

By John Lavanga / A&E Editor

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Every weekend, thousands of college students of legal drinking age make a run on their local liquor store. With whatever money they’ve managed to save up by skipping meals, working somewhat humiliating odd jobs or donating their time and bodily fluids to medical science, they purchase whatever bottom-shelf liquor they can get their hands on and quickly go on their way (presumably to consume said liquor).

If you’re among this particular group, you’re doing it wrong.

The problem with this “whatever’s on sale” approach to liquor that so many of us take is that we tend to get a pretty bad first foray into the world of spirits. If your only experience with bourbon is taking vaguely metallic-tasting shots of Evan Williams — each one eliciting a teary-eyed wince as it burns a path down your esophagus like an Arizona forest fire and hits your guts with the tender touch of a Mike Tyson haymaker because you’re plum out of Hawaiian Punch to mix it down with — chances are you’re not going to have very fond memories of bourbon, or any liquor for that matter.

Through such experiences, many come to believe that liquor is nothing more than an unpleasant and efficient route to a buzz. As the venerable comedian Louis C.K. said, we view that shot of whiskey as merely “brown liquid that makes people feel differently than if they didn’t drink it.”

In other words, liquor is an annoyance that must be briefly endured, or may alternately be drowned in a soft drink of choice until it bears almost no resemblance to its former self.

Such a utilitarian interpretation of the purpose and nature of spirits is gravely, almost tragically, limited. By imagining liquor to be a troublesome means to a desirable end, we frequently overlook a far more elegant path to that same end. For only by embracing the joys of liquor can we get the most out of every ounce of that sweet, sweet poison that we call booze.

This is the beauty of the cocktail.

At its core, any good cocktail is made up of three essential ingredients: a spirit, a bitter element and a sweeter element. The latter two never overwhelm, but instead accentuate the former, allowing its subtler notes to come to the fore and flourish.

It is this willingness to celebrate and savor the liquor we drink that separates cocktails from mixed drinks. While one is an attempt to mask the booze in question, much like the Reagan mask Patrick Swayze dons in “Point Break,” the other tries to emphasize the flavors of the alcohol, smoothing them over like the finish on a finely made piece of woodworking (or the way Patrick Swayze’s golden tan accentuates the curvature of his jawline in “Point Break”).

Any introduction to the world of cocktails should begin with the old fashioned. Originally a product of the 19th century, the old fashioned is a classic American cocktail that typically showcases one of the two quintessentially American spirits: bourbon or rye.

For anyone familiar with the acclaimed TV show “Mad Men,” the name “old fashioned” likely conjures an image of Don Draper in a sharp blue suit muddling a cherry and floating an orange wedge over a couple shots of bourbon as he smooth talks his way into or out of a jam.

However, according to Craig Mrusek, a cocktail expert and bartender at Lawrenceville’s Tender Bar and Kitchen, Draper’s version of the old fashioned is a mid-20th-century bastardization of the drink. The original version of the old fashioned took a far more minimalist approach to things. It consisted simply of whiskey, bitters (which Mrusek said provides an element of sophistication to the drink that keeps it from becoming nothing but sweetened whiskey), and sugar served over one large shard of ice. However, “around the middle of the last century, in the ’40s and ’50s, people started messing around with it,” Mrusek said.

This “messing around” consisted of using muddled fruit and excessive sugar to transform a stiff, rather straight-forward drink into what Mrusek called an “alcoholic fruit salad” of sorts. Though many embrace this somewhat indulgent, modern revisioning of the old fashioned, Mrusek is an advocate of the classic approach, the simplicity of which “embodies that late 19th century [aesthetic].”

In a city like Pittsburgh, where the iron- and steel-forged legacies of 19th century industrialists reverberate through the town’s very core, this feels like a fitting choice.

As stated previously, the whiskey itself is the most important element of the old fashioned. With this in mind, Mrusek laid out the primary differences between bourbon and rye whiskeys. To be legally considered a bourbon, the mash for the whiskey in question must be comprised of at least 51 percent corn, and be aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years, while rye whiskeys must be made from a mash that is, wait for it, 51 percent rye grains, also in charred oak barrels.

Though the other 49 percent of the mash allows for immense latitude in terms of flavor, bourbons tend to carry sweeter notes such as vanilla or honey, while ryes are typically more peppery, with a far more immediate burn.

These elements certainly came through when comparing the two varieties. An old fashioned made with Bulleit bourbon and garnished with a slice of orange rind carried a toasted flavor, with notes of honey and an element of citrus that came from both the bitters and the garnish. Despite being almost entirely alcohol (an old fashioned is traditionally made with 2 shots of whiskey), there was no burn to speak of, and the aftertaste was warm and lingering.

The old fashioned made with Michter’s rye, by contrast, announced its presence a bit more forcefully. The very slightly peppery burn after the initial sip tickled the back of my mouth slightly, but didn’t clash with the brown sugar notes that it offered up at first.

What was most striking about each of these beverages was the way that the traditional whiskey burn is muted by the addition of a few simple ingredients, allowing the taster to ponder the whiskey, rather than gulp it down like some sort of foul medication for one’s existential ills (though that probably happens with old fashioneds, as well). 

Below is a basic recipe for an old-style old fashioned, but as Mrusek noted, “There’s no big stone tablet somewhere that has the canonical recipe” for cocktails, so feel free to add a bit of variety. 

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A defense of the cocktail, and a guide to the old fashioned