Every year, I think about varying the Thanksgiving menu. Should we make a Mediterranean feast? Could we play with the ingredients or give the usual flavors a different inflection — curried sweet potatoes, a habanero-blackberry sauce instead of cranberry? Could we cut back on the massive amounts of butter just enough so that late at night, while I’m lying in bed filled with regret, my night sweats don’t contain trace amounts of butterfat?
Almost inevitably, I conclude: Nah. It just never seems the time for it. To me, holiday meals are there to reach into some recessed part of the American brain, accessing the weirdness that causes us to forget people’s names within seconds of being introduced to them but leaving us able to conjure the exact aromatic tapestry of Mom’s Thanksgiving dinner when we were 6.
The same desire for familiarity governs the tipples I want to prelude holiday meals, that stretch when the smells permeating the house incite increasingly ominous stomach growls. This is not the time for some newfangled dragon fruit-kimchi highball or pastrami-washed dry vermouth — not for a room of people who are gritting their teeth, trying to be on their best behavior and silently mouthing to themselves, “Remember, she’s family; remember, she’s family,” possibly in reference to you.
Instead, have mercy, and provide your poor kinfolk with the chance to doctor up and sip their own bittersweet bolt of booze. Then cross your fingers that they drink just enough to set them at ease, and not so much that they come to blows.
The Old-Fashioned is about as close as you can get to one of the earliest-known definitions of the cocktail itself: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters,” according to a New York state newspaper in 1806. That’s all the drink is (the water coming in the ice), but as many historians have illuminated, it has gone through many awkward phases over the years.
Of late, many bartenders are making a turn from highly complex, multi-ingredient drinks back to simple classics. But as drink writer Robert Simonson notes in his 2014 book, “The Old-Fashioned,” that shift is no new thing. Simonson quotes playwright Leander Richardson, who wrote that “the modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it,” a phrase that could have been penned yesterday but actually appeared in 1886.
Over its early years, depending on who was making it, the Old-Fashioned was complicated with other ingredients (maraschino and orgeat and soda water). For a while it was topped with more fruit than Carmen Miranda, and then that fruit slid down into the drink itself, getting muddled into a fruity marsh that many drink snobs disdained even then. The modern drinkmakers who have brought it back have tended to lean on its more elegant, unadorned form, even while developing new riffs of their own.
Having been present for fruit-vs.-no-fruit arguments, I can settle the matter here and now by saying: Please stop. Unlike many of the fact-based arguments that could arise during your holiday meals — about guns and climate change and the survival of democracy — how you “should” make an Old-Fashioned is a matter of opinion, and the consequences of being “wrong” will result in nothing worse than a lousy drink. Go spirit-focused and spartan, or muddle in half a kiwi and six raspberries if you like. (You probably won’t.) Regardless, you won’t be the first; in the cocktail world, everything old is new again.
An Old-Fashioned bar with all the bitters and garniture and sweeteners at hand will accomplish a number of goals: It allows guests to make their own drinks with pleasure, so you can focus on making sure your cousin’s attempt to deep-fry a turkey doesn’t create a fiery avian projectile, or sneak away from your family to the tender embrace of your phone. The drink also provides a means of bonding in and of itself, as guests can play with ingredients and taste each other’s concoctions. And your little bar space provides a place where guests can walk away from awkward conversations. Repeat after me: “Well, Aunt Marie, if I’m going to follow your advice to get working on a young’un while my ovaries are in their prime, I better get my drinking out of the way first. Shall we have a drink?”
Here’s what you’ll need:
Bar space: If you don’t have a good, sturdy bar cart, create a tabletop space to gather ingredients and allow guests to do minimal prep work. You may want a little sign to guide them, explaining that the standard recipe is 2 ounces of spirit, a little sugar, a few dashes of bitters and ice — and they can take it from there.
Glassware and tools: You’ll need rocks glasses and a bar spoon for stirring. A muddler is useful too, to mash up the bitters and sugar (and the fruit, if guests opt to do so), but you can also go with another early tool: small spoons, just taller than the rim of the glasses, which guests can use to stir and to scrape up the tasty remnants.
Spirits: You’ll want at least three or four bottles of good, sippable spirits: at least a bourbon, a rye and a brandy. They don’t have to be the most expensive, “best” examples, but you don’t want junk.
While they’re not traditional, an aged rum, a dry gin and even agave spirits can make an appearance — after all, when entertaining, your goal should be the joy and pleasure of others, not to provide a purist’s education. If you include a gin and an elderflower liqueur like St-Germain, guests can make a well-known variation: the Elder Fashioned (2 ounces gin, half an ounce liqueur, 2 dashes of orange bitters and a grapefruit twist). And with mezcal, tequila and agave nectar, you can make an Oaxaca Old-Fashioned — both modern classics.
Sweeteners: The classic is defined by the muddling of bitters into sugar. But there are plenty of other options: different kinds of sugar, agave nectar, honey syrup (1:1 honey and hot water, which helps honey dissolve in a cold drink). Sugar cubes already dosed with bitters and other flavorings (as in the accompanying recipe). Flavored syrups: ginger, cinnamon or the chai tea variation that brings in multiple spices and a light tannic bitterness. Liqueurs or a PX sherry can also serve as sweeteners.
Bitters: Angostura bitters are a must, with their notes of baking spice, but you can vary the menu with orange, the anise-y Peychaud’s, or other bitters with darker or spicy flavors — think black walnut, cardamom or chocolate.
Garnishes: While the modern cocktail movement tends to pooh-pooh the fruit that was once piled into Old-Fashioneds, here’s your chance to allow for experimentation. You’ll want whole lemons and oranges that guests can peel, orange slices, brandied cherries and maybe ripe pineapple if you really want to violate the rules of nature.
Ice: You don’t need more than fresh, clean cubes, but if you plan ahead, you can prep some big, clear cubes that will be slower to melt and fit perfectly into a standard rocks glass. Several companies now make molds that allow the home consumer to make clear ice in a regular freezer.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
Makes 100 to 110 pieces
To use these in an Old-Fashioned cocktail, add two of these sugar cubes to a rocks glass, top with the whiskey of your choice, and crush the sugar cube with the back of a spoon or muddler. Add a couple of ice cubes and swirl the contents.
MAKE AHEAD: The sugar cubes (as well as the broken bits) can be stored in an airtight container for up to several months.
Recipes from Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon Angostura bitters
1 tablespoon orange bitters
⅛ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon finely grated orange zest
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with enough parchment paper so that two sides have some overhang (for easy lifting).
Whisk together the sugar, both bitters, the vanilla extract and orange zest in a mixing bowl, until thoroughly incorporated; the sugar will be tinted a pale, orangey pink).
Spread the sugar mixture evenly in the baking dish, then use the bottom of a glass to press/pack it down. Working gently, use a sharp, thin knife to score/slice the pressed mixture into ½ -inch cubes. Bake (middle rack) for 20 to 25 minutes, until set.
Let cool completely before lifting the slab out of the pan and gently breaking apart the cubes. There will be a significant number of crumbled ones; that’s okay. Save that sugar in a separate container.
16 servings (makes about 1 cup)
To use in an Old-Fashioned, combine ½ ounce of the syrup with 2 ounces of your preferred whiskey, dark rum or aged apple brandy, a dash or two of bitters and a couple of ice cubes. Garnish with an optional twist of orange or a cinnamon stick.
MAKE AHEAD: The syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
1 cup water
2 small chai tea bags
1 cup packed light brown sugar
Boil the water in a small pan over high heat, then remove from the heat, add the tea bags and steep for 4 to 6 minutes.
Discard the tea bags; stir in the brown sugar and place the pan over low heat; cook, swirling until the sugar has dissolved. The yield is about 1 cup.
Let cool to room temperature, then transfer to a container and refrigerate until well chilled, or up to 1 week.
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