Just six years ago, Reader legend Ollie laid out an Old Fashioned recipe that, stripped of its existential and romantic trappings, involved dissolving a sugar cube in a splash of water, adding two dashes of Angostura bitters, one ice cube, a lemon peel, and a shot of bourbon, and stirring. He called the result “as close to a punch in the mouth as you can get outside a boxing gym,” and assured the Reader reader, “you’ll never get a drink made from this recipe in any bar, anywhere.” Instead, you could expect additions of maraschino cherry and club soda, and, the legend noted, “there’s even a San Diego version...in which the lemon peel is abandoned in favor of an orange slice.”
I decided to see how six years had affected the truth of Ollie’s claims. I’m not saying I cajoled my best gal into driving me around San Diego so I could drink eight Old Fashioneds last Saturday. Or that I also talked her into dressing up as girl reporter extraordinaire Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday and writing down my increasingly slurred but still devastatingly accurate opinions like they were the bombshell confessions of an accused murderer. I’m also not saying I didn’t. Let’s just agree that eight Old Fashioneds were drunk, all right? And also that His Girl Friday is just the greatest. When my eventual offspring eventually ask me, “Big Daddy Mencken, what were newspapers?” I will tell them to watch His Girl Friday. But first, I will tell them to get me another Old Fashioned, and to make it right this time, or there will be a reckoning.
The making is the thing, you see. And Old Fashioned is not completely basic in the way that gin, tonic, and lime is basic. But it’s close. Whiskey, sugar, bitters, and maybe a touch of fruit. And because it is simple, your craft will show. Starting, then, at the top, and moving on along the path we may or may not have driven:
675 W. Beech Street, Little Italy
Craft & Commerce: Crafty. My bartender asks if I would prefer bourbon, or rye, or some other whiskey. The bourbon will be Evan Williams or Buffalo Trace; the rye, Dickel. I choose rye, because I figure most places will be defaulting to bourbon (this is true). She makes my drink while making another, that one involving a heap of ice cubelets and some sort of powder sprinkle.
Here’s how she makes it: a dash of bitters goes into the empty glass. Then a brimming barspoon’s worth of simple syrup, which I find adds a subtler sweetness than freshly dissolved sugar. Then the rye. Then six biggish ice cubes. She stirs for a count of ten or so, lets the drink sit for 20 seconds or so, then stirs again. Then she peels a shard of lemon rind, squeezes it over the drink, rubs the rim of the glass with it, and drops it in. Finally, she adds a shard of orange rind. There’s only just enough sweet to douse the rye’s alcoholic fire; the grainy sourness remains. It’s artfully contrasted by the citrusy sourness of the lemon, which hits the nasal cavity as the glass is raised and lingers on the tongue after each swallow. A whiskey drink that refreshes as it sloshes.
793 J Street, East Village
Rare Form (793 J Street, East Village): Candied. “Whisky Old Fashioneds” is painted in gold letters right there on the mirror behind the bar, but what you get here is the Rare Form Whiskey Cocktail, a variation on the theme. The bourbon is Evan Williams, the bitters are chocolate, and the cherry comes at you two ways at once: sweetly in a house-made cordial, and warmly in Kirschwasser. It’s a little like drinking a fancy chocolate-covered cherry, with bourbon to keep things grown-up. Fascinating in a way that leaves the tongue feeling like it’s reaching after something in the dark.
4020 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
The Patio on Goldfinch: Newfangled. The Patio substitutes Tres Agaves Reposado tequila for whiskey and opts for chocolate bitters over Angostura. They used to barrel-age this one but found that people preferred the flavors fresh and distinct. Chocolate-forward; I smelled the tequila more than I tasted it. A little sweet but not syrupy, and no burn at all. I don’t often drink cocktails with food — so distracting! — but if I did, I might choose this one.
3085 University Avenue, North Park
URBN: The local basic. Remember Ollie’s recipe? This is that, plus the daffy orange variant he mentioned. Buffalo Trace bourbon gets stirred with four oversize cubes long enough to mellow out much of the booziness, leaving the orange front and center.
2895 University Avenue, North Park
West Coast Tavern: Stepping up. My only other rye variant (Dickel again), served in a lovely conical glass sporting one enormous ice cube. As at Craft & Commerce, the bartender squeezed the citrus rind (orange this time) over the drink before rubbing the rim, to happy effect. He also used simple syrup instead of sugar, which seems to me the right way to go. It tended to let the complicated character of the liquor show through. And the dark, rich maraschino cherry showed up against the sour in each sip.
4612 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Park & Rec (4612 Park Boulevard, University Heights): Sweetness. Bartender Camron, working the patio bar in back, compared the optional maraschino cherry to the olive in a martini. “You can nibble it between sips.”
More chocolate bitters (three times is a trend), but this time orange to boot. Old Forester bourbon and two generous ice cubes. It’s not often you hear “yummy” as an Old Fashioned descriptor.
4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Small Bar: The old-fashioned Old Fashioned. Don’t know how he made it; the place was too crowded to see. But there was Four Roses bourbon involved, and regular-sized, melty ice cubes. Not sweet at all; cherry-nibbling was the only stay against Ollie’s mouthpunch.
4696 30th Street, North Park
Polite Provisions: Marshy-mellow. Eagle Rare bourbon, one big cube, and a fragrant strip of orange. Gomme syrup is the thing here, the sweetened reason the whole thing tastes, in a word, emulsified. In another word, gentle. In another, swirly. Take me home, Hildy.