I love cocktails. Specifically, classic whiskey cocktails. The cocktail tradition has its roots in the United States as a result of the horrendous quality of liquors that were produced in the wake of prohibition, which forced the alcohol industry into the seedy underworld.
Needless to say, rum runners, bootleggers, and mobsters felt no responsibility to deliver quality; only a steady stream of booze. Spirits of dubious provenance were often unpalatable, and sometimes dangerous or even fatal. History reveals that the United States government even had a hand in poisoning alcohol—causing a series of sickenings and deaths—to discourage people from consuming the then illicit substance. A vibrant culture of mixology sprung out of the sheer necessity of making those sub-par alcohols palatable.
Classic cocktails tend to fall into two primary categories, the aromatics and the sours, with boundless subcategories branching off in all directions. In the aromatic category, you will find cocktails such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Sazerac. Aromatic cocktails consist of liquor, a sweetener, and bitters.
Sour cocktails include the Whiskey Sour, Daiquiri, and Margarita. Sours consist of liquor, sweetener, and citrus juice. Bitters began as herbal tinctures, and later became flavoring agents for cocktails. The undisputed grand-daddy of all aromatic cocktails is the Old Fashioned, making it the perfect place to start our foray into the world of amateur mixology.
Believe it or not, there is a robust and ongoing debate between historical purists and boozy young whippersnappers as to the appropriate way to make an Old Fashioned. In its simplest form, a sugar cube, bitters, and dark spirit mixed and served over a single large ice cube. At the other end of the spectrum, you will find a drink that consists of various crushed fruits, sugar, soda, bitters, and whiskey.
I am happy to report that the latter manifestation of the drink has mostly died out, along with some of the other questionable style choices of the era in which it was devised. If you happen to find yourself in a bar or restaurant that serves the latter manifestation, do not walk—bolt to the nearest exit! No good for yourself nor humanity will come of patronizing such a wretched and cynical establishment.
For us amateur home bartenders who wish to serve a good cocktail to our friends, family, and the odd stranger, I have charted a safe, reasonably high quality, middle of the road course. This approach is anchored soundly by a solid choice in whiskey.
Choose a good quality Rye or Bourbon whiskey. Rye is often presented as the more traditional choice, but ultimately your individual preference should guide the decision. Knob Creek is my go-to, and they distill both rye and bourbon whiskeys. Knob Creek Bourbon is 100-proof but is exceptionally smooth as a sipping bourbon. The benefit to higher proof whiskeys is that they tend to be bolder flavored and they won’t dilute too quickly. Other good options include Bulleit (Rye and Bourbon), Makers Mark, Wild Turkey, and Buffalo Trace.
The next hurdle will be sugar. The classic approach is to muddle a pure cane sugar cube with bitters in the bottom of the glass and build it up from there. This method can sometimes cause the drink to be too hot at the beginning and too sweet at the end because the sugar doesn’t incorporate and settles at the bottom. I often use simple syrup, it is much easier and provides a more consistent result from glass to glass. Angostura bitters can be found at most supermarkets. Use good ice, don’t settle for the stale opaque variety that can be found in the home freezer. It will rob the drink of its aesthetic beauty, offend your guests, and perhaps rob you of a portion of your dignity. Yet another choice is whether to use orange or lemon peel as a garnish (there is a difference).
So those are your ingredients; whiskey, simple syrup, bitters, ice, and citrus peel. For equipment you will need, rocks glasses, a bar spoon, mixing glass, strainer, and a measuring device (jigger and spoon or shot glass). For a single portion, begin by filling a rocks glass with ice. In a mixing glass, combine 3-4 dashes of Angostura Bitters, ½ ounce of simple syrup, 2 ounces of whiskey, and a good amount of ice.
Stir for 30 seconds or more to allow the ice to melt and dilute the drink while marrying the flavors. Strain into the rocks glass. Next, peel a long ribbon of orange or lemon, and squeeze over the top of the glass, spritzing the aromatic oils over the top of the drink. Run the peel along the outside rim of the glass and place it inside the drink.
This should result in a supremely palatable drink. Feel free to adjust to your taste; some find it is better with less simple syrup. If you prefer the drink a bit stronger, don’t stir it as long or use larger ice cubes. This is the basic framework for numerous other drinks and will give the new home bartender a good opportunity to learn how to balance the drink.
As you practice, you will notice that the ingredients begin to dictate the process. The ice begins to shout out at the exact moment the drink has been sufficiently stirred. The oranges and lemons vie for your eye with their glistening peel, laden with hefty pores packed with aromatic oil. The condensation on the outside of the glasses whispers the precise moment they are ready to host the liquid. Or maybe that’s the whiskey talking.