We had planned on trying two different versions of the Old Fashioned, from two different bars, and pitting the cocktails against each other. We were going to crack a few pithy jokes, maybe throw in some Don Draper references, and in the end, declare a victor. You see, we've had many an Old Fashioned, at many an L.A. bar, and liked them well enough. They've generally had things like bright-red maraschino cherries in them, or orange peels, or other muddled bits of fruit. Some were oppressively sweet, and others weren't. But when we ordered our cocktail at Library Bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel last night, our search for a great Old Fashioned was over.
It may have been the booze talking — we did have a little wine with dinner earlier in the evening. It could have been the charmingly dark bar too. Or maybe there was something in that rather good calf's brain ravioli we had just eaten at Mozza. Regardless, after chatting for a few minutes with our very knowledgeable bartender, we decided right there on the spot that going to another bar was pointless. There's no reason, after all, to trash some unsuspecting cocktailian. Somewhere in the midst of our second cocktail — containing an alcohol infused with a farmers market heirloom tomato — we informed our bar man, Brady Weise, of the real reason for our visit. Then we got his phone number, and told him we would call him tomorrow to learn what, exactly, made his Old Fashioned so great. The reason, it turns out, is rather old fashioned.
“It's the oldest expression of what is considered to be a cocktail,” Weise told us by phone. “It's what we think of when we think of a very traditional cocktail. Before they had a lot of tools behind a bar, they had sugar, they had bitters, and sometimes they had ice. Or water.”
Nowadays, most versions of the Old Fashioned contain what Weise refers to as, “the fruit party.” But at Library Bar, it's about highlighting the spirit rather than hiding it. Just as the simplest way to gauge a chef's true skill is to have them make an omelet, for a bartender, it is probably the Old Fashioned.
“Old Fashioneds are really tricky, because you have to know what you're doing, and it's really obvious when you don't,” continued Weise. “They're the most difficult to master. There are people who make much better Old Fashioneds than mine, but I think I try to bring out the essence of the spirit. I try to present it to the customer.”
So what goes into a true Old Fashioned? “You take what people call a bucket glass, or a small rocks glass — and they're called Old Fashioned glasses. You take whatever bitter agent you want to use…and you put 4-5 good dashes in the bottom of the glass. It will create a little halo effect. You'll see a slight color change at the bottom of the glass. Then you drop the sugar cube in, and it literally sucks up the bitters. If you use a darker bitter, you can see the color change going up the cube.”
For the next step, you add, “a couple of drops, really, of soda water,” Weise says, which will start to dissolve the sugar cube. “Then you add two ounces of whatever spirit you want to use.” This is an area that leaves a lot of room for personal preference, since you can essentially use any spirit you want. A vodka Old Fashioned, for instance, is interesting because, “the bitter becomes the main component, rather than the alcohol.” Since vodka is essentially a neutral spirit, you can flavor your drink with different kinds of bitters, and different types of sugars as well.
Next up, Weise uses a rather large ice cube, which simply sits in the glass, and is gently stirred. Since the sugar may begin to solidify under the ice cube, he uses the spoon to, “lift up the ice a little bit and agitate the bottom.”
The goal with an Old Fashioned is to start out with, “a little bit of sting. There should be a tiny bit of alcohol on the back of the tongue.” As it will probably take you around ten minutes to drink the cocktail, there will be gradual dilution, and you need to make sure it will taste good throughout. “Usually by the time you work about halfway through the Old Fashioned, the alcohol sting is gone completely. So when you finish it, it will be flavorful, but relatively un-diluted.”
Then there is the citrus peel garnish, with the type of citrus dependent on personal taste, and of course, the type of spirit too. Weise uses his citrus peel to mist the drink, then rests it atop the back of the glass, so that the aromas are in play without adding the strong flavor to the drink itself. When misting, he holds the peel two to three inches away, and at a 45 degree angle, so that when he squeezes it, the heavier, more bitter oils fall straight down, allowing the lighter and more effervescent oils to blast onto the top of the ice.
Needless to say, sometimes the old ways really are the best. After all, man can't yet live on powdered gin and tonics alone.