When a bar has a lousy cocktail list — swizzly vodka things, cranberry akai hoo-ha, something-tinis, etc. — I often scan the bottles along the back wall to see what I might be able to put together.
In this for worse or better I’ve been emboldened by Robert Simonson, whose wonderful book The Old Fashioned explains that this classic ur-cocktail is built along the original cocktail formula: booze, sugar, bitters, and “water,” which is to say ice.
The result, around the 1860s, was served by among others the ur-bartender Professor Jerry Thomas [him again] as the “Whiskey Cocktail.”
Almost immediately it spawned variations, as barkeeps scanned their own shelves to see how they could push things forward. The variations first added different kinds of sweeteners — curacao, maraschino.Then all hell broke loose.
These were often referred to as “Improved Whiskey Cocktails.”
Purists were horrified, Simonson reports, sending some of them back to the unadorned…wait for it…”old fashioned” cocktail.
As Simonson points out, this did not thwart the “rebels.” Over nearly 150 years a few great variations of the Old Fashioned and many bad ones have emerged, with every kind of booze, sweetener, bitters, and garnish imaginable.
The book curates some of the best variations — “Improved Old Fashioneds,” you might call them.
New, if not “improved”
And so I am perched on a barstool at a neighborhood joint, where I’ve worked through the short list of cocktails with little enthusiasm. Spying Old West Double Rye and Domain de Canton ginger liquor along the back wall, I think booze, sweetener, bitters….
I ask Sasha for a shot of the rye, half an ounce of Domaine de Canton. He tastes with a straw, scratches his chin, reaches for the orange bitters and applies them generously. Increases the dose of rye a bit. He flames an orange peel.
And you know what? It actually works. In fact, it’s really good.
There’s enough double rye to keep the bite, but the ginger liqueur softens the burn and brings a bit of its own spicy tang. The orange adds a citrus-y vibe, its volume turned up by the flamed orange.
Over several visits we work on the proportions. We’ve landed here for now.
The Ginger Orange Flame
- 2.25 oz Old West Double Rye
- A pricey bottle for home use at $40. Rittenhouse, about half the price, substitutes nicely; the 100-proof version does so even better
- .40-ish oz Domain de Canton ginger liqueur
- $30 to $40 a bottle
- 4 [!] dashes Regan’s orange bitters
- I know, that’s a lot. Somehow it’s less of a drink with fewer dashes. $6. Cheap!
- Flamed orange peel garnish
This is a boozy drink. Have two and you’re verging into Uber territory. It drinks smooth and has enough complexity to be interesting. It’s a sparky drink more than a contemplative one.
In a moment of weakness [perhaps he’d been drinking] Sasha said he’d put the drink on the menu as “Craig’s Old Fashioned.” This would be a first — a semi-original of mine appearing on a cocktail menu, where other humans might actually pay money for it.
With the high-quality hooch, it would have to be a $10+ drink, high for a neighborhood joint. So it needs a compelling name. A drink called the “Ginger Orange Flame” would sell way better, with its hints of pyrotechnics and, perhaps, romance.
Plus, by refusing to call it any kind of “Old Fashioned,” I think Robert Simonson would approve.
Of the name, at least.
The Ginger Orange Flame, like so many riffs on the classic, may be an acquired taste.