Saturday 24 September 2011

The old ones are the best ones

In my review of the new Handmade Cocktail Company range of ready-mixed, bottled cocktails from Master of Malt, I mentioned that there had clearly also been an Old Fashioned, but that the website listed it as out of stock. Almost as soon as I posted that, a bottle arrived from a new batch.

The drinks chosen for this range have all focused on the classics—whether to maximise recognition, to show just how well they could turbo-charge an established formula or simply because these tend to be spirit-heavy and therefore self-preserving—and it’s hard to get much more classic than this. Widely regarded as one of the oldest cocktails around, it was already being called an “old fashioned cocktail” by the late nineteenth century, to distinguish it from modern upstarts like the Manhattan and Martini, with their fancy vermouths. Apparently the first recorded use of the name was on the menu at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. An Old Fashioned is essentially a glass of whiskey with sugar and bitters. It is entirely possible that the sugar was there to soften the roughness of early whiskey and perhaps that the whiskey was there to make the medicinal bitters more palatable. (As is so often the case, drinkers developed a taste for the medicine—as with tonic water and probably most herbal drinks, including gin and absinthe).

The Handmade Cocktail Company version starts with a high-proof, nine-year-old rye-heavy bourbon (they won’t say which one), which is sweetened and augmented with a secret blend of bitters plus orange peel. It is bottled at 38.4% ABV in the same pleasingly squat, hefty and, yes, old-fashioned bottle as the rest of the range. You simply pour a slug into a glass over ice—though, as with the other drinks in the range, it also give you the chance just to keep the bottle in the freezer.

I have to say that, not having a sweet tooth myself, the Old Fashioned is not my favourite cocktail. And yet, as with the other drinks in this range, I instantly get a sense that this is a very polished and poised example of its kind; and once I’ve got used to the sweetness, I find it very easy to quaff. (In fact I see that I have already managed to drink half the bottle. Tum tee tum.) Moreover, I would add that the level of sweetness is entirely as it should be, balancing well with the fire of the bourbon. This cocktail has a wonderful perfume of wood (evoking old varnished wood, cigar box wood, fruit crate wood), fruit (both fresh and rich, dried fruit), plus keen, high aromatic notes from the bitters, yet all of it integrating so well that it is in fact hard to say which elements come from which ingredient. On the tongue it spreads softly and warmly and finishes with a marmalade and vanilla depth. The instructions suggest serving with a piece of squeezed orange peel, though I confess I never seem to have oranges in—unlike lemons and limes. In honour of Jerry Thomas’ recipe I try a lemon peel instead and it is jolly appealing, adding a refreshing zing to the drink (although, in combination with the sugar, also reminding me of Opal Fruits—or Starburst as you youngsters would know them). But I would add that I don’t think the drink actually needs a garnish at all.

If you’re a fan of the Old Fashioned and want to make sure you’ve tasted it at its best—or if you’ve tried it and didn’t think you liked it—I advise you to try this version.

The Handmade Cocktail Company’s Old Fashioned Cocktail is available from Master of Malt for £34.95 for a 70cl bottle.

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