All this fancy mixology stuff is well and good. But to quote Liberace by way of De La Soul, for my next number I'd like to return to the classics. Something a bit leaner and meaner. Something that takes cocktails back to their roots, when a bar spoon was known as the only silverware in the house, and citrus reaming was illegal in the state of North Dakota. That's how I ended up sidling up to the bar at the Classic Tavern in LoHi for a taste of the past.
The Classic advertises itself as the place to go "when you're done with mixolology." Compared to its shaker-obsessed neighbors down the street, the Classic (which took over the former home of the Arabian) is trying hard to be a serious dive bar -- and judging by the amount of Schlitz and Olympia memorabilia adorning the walls, it's well on their way. On a Tuesday night, the rail was packed. I squeezed in, and asked the bartender for a classic cocktail. "How about an Old-Fashioned?" she asked.
It was a good choice. The origin story of the Old-Fashioned is practically inseparable from the origin of the cocktail. Drink historians often trace the Old-Fashioned back to the early 1800s, when an inquiring reader of a New York newspaper called The Balance and Columbian Repository> asked about the odd word "Cock tail."
"Is it peculiar to a part of this country? Or is it a late invention? Is the name expressive of the effect which the drink has on a particular part of the body?" he wrote.The sage editor replied "Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters...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." Yes, in the heady days of the early nineteenth century, even the drink recipes were political.
Back then, an old-fashioned merely referred to the style of cocktail, and then gradually solidified to mean a whiskey drink, specifically. In the past few years, however, the Old-Fashioned has ridden the coattails of the artisan cocktail movement to become its biggest star. It's the drink used to test a bartender's mettle, but also the first thing to come up when it's time to order and the mind is blank. It's a drink for Don Draper chasers, people who aren't "cocktail people" and -- in the wrong place and wrong time -- for dickheads.
Although Mad Men mania casts a large shadow over the cocktail, thankfully it does not extend to the Classic, which is to handsome cable dramas what salt is to slugs. I was at first disappointed to find the tell-tale red of maraschino cherry in my drink, its muddled guts oozing everywhere. One too many fancy-fied Old-Fashioneds had me expecting something more demure.
But one of the reasons the Old-Fashioned endures is that it complements the whiskey so well, without obscuring it. A little bit of sweetness and a hint of citrus are enough to make you see your favorite brand in a new light. And no matter how you make it, it's a source of comfort, like an old easy chair, or an uncle who always tells the same story about the time he spilled marmalade on Mamie Eisenhower.
There are endless variations on the Old-Fashioned, from a coffee version to one with maple syrup, but it seems unwise to list one of those here. Nothing but a classic will do, and that means rye whiskey, Angostura bitters, and no cherry. The Classic Old-Fashioned
Ingredients: 2 oz. rye whiskey 1 oz. club soda 2 dashes Angostura bitters .5 oz simple syrup (or substitute 1 tsp sugar) Orange peel
Combine ice, soda, syrup and whiskey in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add bitters, squeeze the peel into the drink and stir. Light cigarette, wear conservative tie, begin reaffirming traditional gender roles.
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With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.