Spirit. Sugar. Bitters. Water. The Old Fashioned seems simple enough on the surface, but dig deeper and you’ll find enough backstory to fill a book. And the name of that book is The Old Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore by New York Times journalist Robert Simonson. Mr Simonson is also a contributing editor at Punch and his work has appeared in many influential food and beverage related publications like Food & Wine, Saveur, GQ, Lucky Peach, Whisky Advocate, and Imbibe. He is the author of two other cocktail books, 3-Ingredient Cocktails (2017) and A Proper Drink (2016). Clearly, he knows the subject matter.
The Old Fashioned covers the history of this iconic drink and documents classic and contemporary recipes. And in celebration of Old Fashioned Week, I interviewed its author to find out more about his work and thoughts on the past and future of the Old Fashioned cocktail.
Forest Collins: Before we start getting into the nitty-gritty of the Old Fashioned, let’s talk about you a bit. You went from writing about theatre to writing about wine and finally to cocktails and spirits. I believe the cocktail/spirits turning point for you was when you were invited by one of the original founders of Tales of the Cocktail to go to New Orleans for their 2006 cocktail festival. What was it about this event, the community, or the cocktail scene at the time that sucked you in and made you the stick around to become the specialist that you are today?
Robert Simonson: I’d always been vaguely interested in cocktails—an interest probably born from my love of American literature and movies from the early 20th century. But I didn’t know much about them, and didn’t imagine there were many who shared my interest. Tales changed that. It opened my eyes to a world and a community that was just then getting on its feet. Cocktails had everything I liked—history, ritual, theatre, storytelling, characters, sophistication. It wasn’t a hard decision to switch my focus from wine to cocktails.
FC: In your book, you talk about the importance of the Old Fashioned as one of the “inaugural cocktail trinity” [along with the martini and manhattan] and explain why it’s a subject worth researching and documenting. But, what inspired you, personally, to take on that challenge?
RS: It was the right subject at the right time. Young people were drinking Old-Fashioneds again, after years of the drink being undervalued and misunderstood and dated. It was appearing on cocktail menus all over the place, and being served in a delectable fashion—no muddled fruit, no soda water, good whiskey, good ice—as hadn’t been seen in a century. The drink was ripe for the book treatment. What’s more, there had, amazingly, never been a book about the Old-Fashioned, as opposed to, say, the Martini, which has had dozens of books devoted to it.
FC: I read that you had a life-changing Old Fashioned at Prime Meats in Brooklyn in 2009. Can you tell readers a little about that?
RS: Yes. Prime Meats was one of the first important cocktail bars in Brooklyn. Damon Boelte was the bar director. He put an Old-Fashioned on the menu at a ridiculously low price, saying it was his “gift to the neighborhood.” He made it with bitters made from a Bartlett pear tree that grew in the back courtyard. It was a perfectly rendered Old-Fashioned. It showed me how good the drink could be if made well. And it showed me that the drink was newly popular, as everyone at the bar was ordering them. I tried the drink again recently. It’s still just as good.
FC: You currently live in Brooklyn, but are originally from Wisconsin, which is a state with an interesting reputation when it comes to the Old Fashioned. Can you give us a local perspective on the Old Fashioned? And, has this influenced your approach to research on or appreciation of the drink?
RS: I consider myself fortunate, as a journalist and Old-Fashioned-wise, to have roots in both Wisconsin and New York. I’ve been exposed to the best of both worlds. It has also prevented me from not getting snobbish about what defines an Old-Fashioned. Wisconsin has a great Old-Fashioned tradition, even if it’s quirky version of the drink isn’t familiar to most of the world; while New York, quite frankly, makes the best Old-Fashioneds in the world in my opinion. They are perfectly crafted. Wisconsinites love the drink to death, but New Yorkers really understand the drink.
FC: Speaking of regional differences, in your travels – either domestically or internationally – have you come across any geographic tendencies or practices in terms of Old Fashioneds?
RS: European cocktails bars tend to do the drink a little differently. Some are influenced by the London style of Old-Fashioned, which involved stirring down the drink for an ungodly amount of time. Lately I’ve noticed the rum Old-Fashioned has come to the fore as a preferred variation on the drink. I see it on a lot of menu as the house Old-Fashioned. I think that’s just bartenders getting a little bored with customers ordering Old-Fashioned after Old-Fashioned.
FC: In your book, you talk about the Old Fashioned as being part of the trinity of classics with the martini and manhattan, but also as the ‘late comer’ to the cocktail revival party. You explain that the martini and manhattan had “retained some dignity” while the Old Fashioned was subjected to the mistreatment of so many subpar versions involving soda or muddled fruit. Yet, I wonder if the Old Fashioned’s “flexibility” could also very much be to its advantage. While the martini and manhattan remain very true to their traditional recipes, the Old Fashioned has now become a template that inspired many modern day classics, giving it a stronger – and possibly longer – life than the others. Do you have any thoughts on that?
RS: You’re right. One of the great strengths of the Old-Fashioned is it’s both a specific cocktail and an adaptable recipe. It’s plug and play. It is the original cocktail formula: spirit, sugar, bitters, water. It makes sense that it has birthed more solid variations than probably any other drink. It’s just one of those rock-solid ideas that work.
FC: You are the expert when it comes to this cocktail, so I’d feel remiss if I didn’t ask some very specific questions about your take on the Old Fashioned, so here’s a quick fire:
What was the best Old Fashioned you’ve ever had?
RS: Impossible to say. I’ve had so many good ones. But the drink is reliably excellent at Prime Meats, Dutch Kills, Attaboy, Clover Club, Blueprint, Nomad and Amor y Amargo, just to name a few New York bars.
FC: What was the worst Old Fashioned you’ve ever had?
RS: Probably some random drink in some random bar in Wisconsin. The bad ones are best forgotten.
FC: What was the last Old Fashioned you had?
RS: One I made for myself at my home bar. Muddled sugar cube, rye, big ice, orange twist, built in the glass. Simple. After all these years, I can make a pretty good one in my sleep.
FC: What would you recommend for readers who are new to the Old Fashioned as a starter recipe?
RS: For a beginning, I’d say use simple syrup, one part sugar to one part water. Sugar cubes are a little hard to master as far as dissolving all the sugar. So, a bar spoon of simple and a couple dashes of Ango in an Old-Fashioned glass. Add two ounces of rye or bourbon and stir. Add a large ice cube (2×2 inches) and stir until chilled, about 15 seconds. Cut a large orange twist and slip it into the glass. You’re done.
FC: What would you recommend to cocktail lovers who have had plenty of Old Fashioned to shake things up a bit and be surprised or enlightened?
RS: Quite frankly, I’d recommend the same recipe as above. If you really want to try something different, try a different spirit, like apple brandy or genever. The Old-Fashioned recipe is a template, after all, that applies to most spirits.
FC: And, finally, do you have a favorite Old Fashioned + snack pairing?
RS: Not really. If you put some nuts or olives in front of me, I’ll eat them. But I tend to drink my Old-Fashioneds solo. They merit the concentration.
FC: While we’ve been here to talk to about your book on the Old Fashioned, you’ve written some other great cocktail lit. Would you like to tell the readers about some of your other work?
RS: Sure. I wrote a book called “A Proper Drink.” It’s a history of the cocktail renaissance of the past 30 years. It has recipes but it’s not a cocktail book. It’s a history. So if you’re curious how this all happened, that’s your book. More recently, I wrote “3-Ingredient Cocktail,” which is a cocktail book. It focuses on the simple classics that have always been the bedrock of the cocktail canon, and serves as a reminder that you don’t have to have a degree in mixology to make a good drink at home.
FC: So what’s in store in the future for both you and the Old Fashioned?
Currently, I’m working on a book about the Martini. It will be published in the fall of 2019. So I’ve been drinking a lot of Martinis. But I still slip in an Old-Fashioned of two in there from time to time