I used to never order an Old-Fashioned when going out to a bar, because I never knew what I'd get -- an inch-thick paste of smashed fruit goo at the bottom? A glass brimming with seltzer? (or worse, Sprite?) -- and that was kind of like the Bad Old Days of drinks literature, when you had to sift through umpteen badly-edited lists of crummy recipes to find one or two books that rose above the Mr. Boston standard. Nowadays, of course, with the explosion of quality bars and general heightened interest in all things cocktailian these days, there are plenty of places where I feel comfortable walking in and confidently ordering an Old-Fashioned, knowing that I'll get a well-made, tasty drink. Similarly, there's a myriad of interesting cocktail books around, and it's been fascinating to watch them go from catchall collections of recipes to reprints of classics to more intensely specialized books narrowly focusing on a particular historical period, a bar, a locale, a category of drinks, or even a particular drink itself.
Robert Simonson's "The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes & Lore" (Ten Speed, $18.99), is one of the latter, of course. It delves deeply into the history of the titular drink, and presents dozens of variations. Simonson's writing is precise and poetic: "When properly made according to its original specifications, the Old-Fashioned's amber glow is no longer obscured by phosphorescent refugees from the produce department." The first section of the book is a well-observed history of how the drink we know as the Old-Fashioned evolved. That was one of my first surprises, as I'd always thought the Old-Fashioned was a relic from the nineteenth century (Simonson describes it as "the primordial cocktail"), unchanged since the days of Jerry Thomas. Rather, it evolved, slowly and incrementally, into what we expect today. Did you know that the original garnish for the drink was a miniature spoon, or that it was originally consumed as a fast morning pick-me-up?
Simonson writes for the New York Times, which has dubbed him "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches." In the book, he loads us up with colorful stories and quotes from tons of sources to spin his yarns, including some now-forgotten bar guides and old newspapers from Brooklyn, Chicago, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and one admirably cranky letter to the Times in 1936. He considers various claims to the title of the drink's inventor, and dismisses Col. Jim Gray's (who added nutmeg, didn't have bitters, and shook the drink) and the Pendennis Club's (which is thinly sourced and historically problematic.) And he takes us through the Fruit Wars -- the rise and fall of the orange wheel/cherries/pineapple (!) garnish and what various bartenders did with them. (A few years ago, I ordered an Old-Fashioned before dinner at Mandina's. The waiter immediately asked me the question "With or without the garbage?") In sidebars, Simonson also addresses the Mad Men effect (I don't love how Don Draper mixes his drink) and the pecularity that is the Wisconsin-style Brandy Old-Fashioned, which as a Wisconsinite himself he's eminently qualified to do.
A brief note on gear and technique follows, and then we're on to the recipes. After the standard and historical recipes which were described in the first section, we move on to the many creative variations on the drink. Simonson observes that the Old-Fashioned lends itself especially well to tinkering, especially with all the kinds of sweeteners, flavored syrups, and bitters available these days. Don Lee's groundbreaking bacon-infused Benton's Old-Fashioned from PDT is included, as is Phil Ward's magical Oaxaca Old-Fashioned from Death & Co. (And I can't wait to try the Clint Eastwood by Mike Ryan from Chicago's Violet Hour, Chris Hannah's Rebennack from the French 75 in New Orleans, or the New Ceremony from Tonia Guffey at Dram in Brooklyn; they all look fantastic.) Simonson even offers up a couple recipes of his own devising, including a bourbon-and-Perique Old-Fashioned that is yet another reason I want to get my hands on a couple bottles of that stuff.
The book is well-designed, too, with many pages of absolutely gorgeous photography (by Daniel Krieger) of the drinks, equipment, and bartenders, taken in bars around New York. I've been carrying around the book for the past couple of days while I write this review, and the cover shot makes my mouth water. I also like the comfortable dimensions (8" x 5 1/2") and jacketless hardback approach. There's a good and useful index, the endpapers are marbled, and the whole package just feels solid, attractive, and well thought out. I found a couple copy-editing nitpicks (and the page for the Rum Old-Fashioned specifies English Harbour rum and a lime twist, while the photo depicts El Dorado 12 and an orange), but they're exceedingly minor and don't detract from the book.
All in all, this is a great look at "the grandfather of them all." The Old-Fashioned is definitely worthy of a high-quality book exploring its history, continuing significance, and future, and that book has arrived.
(Thanks to Ten Speed Press and Robert Simonson for sending me a review copy.)