Whiskey (or Whisky) and the Old Fashioned

heavenProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

There are classic cocktails and there is the classic cocktail. If the Old Fashioned is not the most classic cocktail, it is on the very short list being considered. A cocktail, or bittered sling for you old fashioned types, is defined as a spirit, water, sugar and bitters. The Old Fashioned is traditionally a whiskey, sugar, water and bitters. There may have been a different bitter in the original recipe but since it is no longer available Angostura is the most common.

This may be one of the few drinks, despite its age, for which there is some consensus about the history. It was created in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880’s at the Pendennis Club. The recipe was introduced to New Yorkers through one of the Pendennis Club members, Col. James Pepper, who had it made at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. There were variations that included different types of gin, brandy and other whiskeys and it is not too hard to imagine that rum was another alternative at that time.

The most traditional way to make an Old Fashioned uses straight sugar. The sugar, in lump or granular form, is muddled with a small amount of water. The whiskey and bitters are added followed by ice and a garnish of lemon peel. I chose a recipe that used simple syrup instead of the muddled sugar and water:

2 ounces whiskey (rye or bourbon classically)
.5 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitter
Lemon peel for garnish

Mix all ingredients in glass with ice, stir and strain into a glass (old fashioned of course) with a large chunk of ice then garnish with lemon peel. I also made a version with demerara simple syrup and orange bitters. Purists may argue that the classics should remain steadfast to the basic recipe, but this is a drink that has almost as many variations as the simple list of components permit.

The second part of this week’s selection was a whiskey tasting, in part to determine what to use in the cocktail. Thanks to this blog, I had a number of options to taste and friends contributed more. A group of us ended up trying two regular bourbons, one high proof bourbon, a wheat whiskey, a rye whiskey and one from Tennessee.

Tastings can be as detailed and complex as you want, but we settled on some introductory comments and instructions from Bourbon Jerry on what to look for and consider and a basic rating system. All the participants tried small, very small, tastings of numbered whiskeys (so there would not be any bias), rated them on a scale from 1 to 10 with the higher number the better rating, and added short comments if they chose.

Not too surprisingly, the higher end selection of the two bourbons was rated best. It was a little unexpected that the other straight bourbon, which by itself on ice has been a very popular brand with some of the regular bourbon drinkers, was the lowest rated. The wheat, rye, Tennessee and high proof bourbon all had similar ratings with notes that ranged from the basic “smooth” to the more detailed “tastes like pine trees.” Not exactly pure science, but an interesting way to compare and contrast. One final note – after the tasting it was hard to get folks to try the drink so maybe one endeavor or the other at a time would be better.

And Here’s David’s Review:

whiskers1As seriously as I took this tasting process—and I thought of it as the main event before making my Old Fashioned—my assessment was anything but scientific. Even if I put aside using one version of each whiskey to represent the style and overlook my suspect tasting apparatus, the task itself was troublesome.

When students miss the purpose of comparison-contrast analysis, I sometimes demonstrate with paperclips. The paperclips I pass around look identical but, on closer examination, differ in subtle ways. One is more tarnished, another noticeably re-bent into shape. One is slightly larger or smaller, a frailer gauge, another grade of metal, or looser than another. The point is that, when two things seem alike, you become more discerning and make subtle—we hope, more valuable—distinctions.

Whiskeys are so different it’s difficult to compare in subtle ways. Were they paperclips, they’d be a brass fastener and a bobby pin, an alligator clip and a clothes pin, or a surgical clamp. I wondered, “What do these seemingly unlike things have in common that makes them all whiskeys?”

Of course, you can look elsewhere for the technical answer, but as a taster (with some help from a friend, thank goodness), I recognized oak in nearly all and a mellow, rounded sweetness that, depending on the type, announced themselves or demurred. On top of that flavor base, the way they entered and exited my notice varied considerably.

A taster’s vocabulary is usually much more savvy, but comparing unlike things is tough. Six bourbons or scotches might incite subtler, more taster-worthy diction, as Jonathan’s process suggests. However, here’s my line-up, with preferences (and ranks) after each:

Scotch Whiskey (Glenmorangie Single Malt, 10 Year Old): Thanks to an unfortunate experience at a Revolutionary War reenactment many years ago, I have a pretty indelible sense of what scotch tastes like. It’s earthy, often peaty or smoky, and, compared to some of the other whiskeys on this list, seems harsher in its attack and more lingering in its aftertaste. Though the particular scotch I tried was mellower and less leathery than the Islay scotches I’ve tried, it nonetheless reminded me that scotch is the most distinctive whiskey, redolent of tannin and more sulfurous (to me) than the others.

Though I’m not a scotch man, I can appreciate its unabashed idiosyncrasies (4).

Irish Whiskey (Powers Gold Label): Depending on your taste, the multiple distillations of Irish Whiskey either make it smooth (and thus highly drinkable) or domesticated to the point of being too tame. To me, the Powers evoked caramel that almost erased the oak until it reappeared at the finish and created something refined, more gentle than bold. Fieriness and distinctively different components weren’t as notable in this Irish whiskey. Maybe the proof of two spirits—the scotch was stronger—accounts for that, but flavors appear to cooperate more in Irish whiskey.

Drinkable, partly because some flamboyance seems washed out by distillation (5).

Canadian Whisky (Bison Ridge Canadian Whisky, 8 Year): A fine line divides “subtle” and “confused.” People who love Canadian Whisky will say my tasting apparatus is flawed, but, in this field of whiskeys, the Canadian variety seemed tame, relatively uniform in medicinal flavor start to finish, thoroughly distilled. It could be the brand I chose, but this spirit possessed less woody or sweet overtones than its brother-whiskeys. Were they a family, Canadian Whiskey would be the reticent one—visitors lean in to catch a few words.

Canadian Whisky is solid, likeable, and maybe not ambitious enough for me (6).

Bourbon (Rebel Yell): Bourbon seems all about corn and displays a rounded gravity and sweetness that sets it apart from the other whiskeys. Any bitter or tannin-y flavors imparted by the oak are largely subdued by a taste that, for me, recalls cornbread. There’s something quite cooked about bourbon that some enjoy and some don’t. My tasting companion finds its grain elements so overabundant they distract from its spiritousness. Bourbon comes closest to the candied flavor of liqueurs (without their overt sugariness).

I like Bourbon’s recollection of cornbread, though I see why some don’t (2).

Rye (Rittenhouse): As a higher-proof rye whiskey, my version made itself known right away in a very alcohol-forward first impression. However, the sharp and spicy taste of rye also rests with rye itself, which—think about rye bread—can conjure anise or fennel. The sweet element in rye takes a second seat to an almost botanical taste, seeming more burnt—think pralines—than refined. Rye’s popularity in cocktails may rest in its capacity to echo whatever spice, sweetness, or botanical taste the other ingredients provide. One its own, its more direct, and for some, probably too harsh.

Among whiskeys, rye may be less palatable straight but is a welcome chameleon in cocktails (1).

Corn Whiskey/Moonshine (Buffalo Trace White Dog, Mash #1): Having encountered moonshine only in movies and television, I expected it to be close to ethyl alcohol in potency and distillation. However, the particular variety I chose reminded me much more of cachaca. It seemed uncooked, and, having never been aged in any sort of cask, nothing mitigated its almost candy corn smell and taste. Yes, it was potent (quite) but not at all in the medicinal way I thought. In fact, it felt closer to raw bourbon or rum than vodka.

This whiskey’s corn power and taste seem crude, which is a good and bad thing (3).

My choice for the Old Fashioned was Corn Whiskey—not because I liked it best but because it seemed the most dramatic. After tasting all those whiskeys, it seemed especially alcoholic to me. I see why the Old Fashioned is Don Draper’s favorite. It’s straight and sweet. Yet, I’d never in a million years make another with Corn Whiskey (and doubt he would either) because the spirit seems to steal the show.

Jonathan’s take: I am no purist, so the basic Old Fashioned offers endless possibilities and an excuse to acquire more bitters.

David’s take: Cocktails that promise variation and experimentation are a this not-so-savvy cocktailian’s dream.

Next Week (Proposed by David):

As my late and long posting indicates, this week seemed pretty ambitious to me. Next week, not so much. After a week of drinks that made me feel like I was being embraced by a series of grandfathers in wool cardigans, I thought it’d be nice to try a Cosmopolitan, an easy and breezy combination of vodka, cranberry juice, and orange liqueur… and quite a leap from Mad Men into Sex in the City.

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The Long Island Ice Tea

LIITProposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

There are two parts to the introduction to this week’s cocktail—Long Island Iced Tea. The first is the background on the drink and the inevitable varying accounts of its origin. There is also a second part about how I ended up proposing what could be considered a party punch because of its large proportion of liquor, and another version worth trying.

One would assume that the Long Island part of the name is the biggest hint to the origin of this cocktail. In fact, many accounts attribute the invention to a bar in Long Island and a bartender with the catchy name of Bob “Rosebud” Butt. That is far too simple a history, though, and other accounts suggest a different bartender (Chris Bendickson), different locations of the same bar (the Oak Beach Inn) and that the drink’s origin predates the Oak Beach Inn concoction.

My favorite story of this cocktail reveals a personal bias. I was born in Maryland, reared in south Texas and have spent my entire adult life in North Carolina. That clearly makes me a southerner and with that a lover of true (sweet) iced tea. The concept of the Long Island Iced Tea is that the odd mix of numerous liquors, citrus, sweetening agents and cola resembles, or even mimics, actual sweet tea. How then, can this drink have been invented in Long Island, New York where they clearly do not know or appreciate (yes, I know this statement may offend) sweet tea?

That brings us to the community of Long Island in the southern city of Kingsport, Tennessee. This story of Long Island Iced Tea obviously bases the name on that community and a resident affectionately referred to as Old Man Bishop. He is said to have first introduced this alcoholic tea in the 1920’s and his son, Ransom Bishop, perfected it in the 1940’s. There are suggestions that they might have distilled their own alcohol which makes me wonder both why the mix of so many different liquors, as opposed to simple moonshine, and why tequila is part of most recipes. Those inconsistencies aside, I like this story better simply because a drink that mimics sweet tea needs to have come from a place where they know and appreciate true sweet tea.

The recipe I started with was equal parts vodka, gin, triple sec, tequila and rum. Added to that was one part homemade sweet and sour mix (3 parts water, 3 parts sugar, 2 parts lemon and 2 parts lime) and 2 parts cola. The first batch was too gin dominant and strong so I changed to half parts gin and triple sec and increased the sweet and sour and cola amounts. Not only did it taste better, and more like tea, but it decreased the alcohol content.

the drinkersSo why a cocktail that falls into a category that includes such party stalwarts as PJ, rocket fuel and battleship punch? This weekend was an annual golf trip that now includes 24 to 28 golfers but began with a smaller group of friends from college. I asked the core group to vote on the cocktail and they suggested this one despite my plea for something golf related such as the Hole in One cocktail. While we ended up with the Long Island Iced Tea we were able to accomplish the second golf related goal with another version of this cocktail. Substituting Blue Curacao for the triple sec and sprite for the cola creates a drink that is named for the cry of a golfer as he launches a shot deep into the woods or the depths of a water hazard – Adios, Motherfucker!

It’s a real drink, I promise.

Here’s David’s Review:

The Long Island Ice Tea was notorious when I was a college student, and classmates spoke of it as a sneaky drink that tasted like punch and then hit with an even bigger inebriating punch. They described having two or three (or four—we are talking about college) when they should have had one. The story really focused the mayhem that ensued.

Maybe that warned me away. More likely I busied myself killing brain cells in other causes. In any case, I’m perhaps the only undergraduate of my era never to have had one. My first LIIT came this weekend, and I’m rather glad. It is delicious. It is lethal. Had I encountered it earlier, my grades might have suffered.

Though it tastes little like tea to me, contains no tea, and isn’t really even the right color for tea, the Long Island Ice Tea somehow manages to go down as easily. I didn’t taste any of the liquors, not even the gin, which, unlike Jonathan’s, didn’t assert itself, nor did I get the sort of coughing kick you’d expect from four-plus ounces of alcohol. I read somewhere that a Long Island Ice Tea boasts 22% alcohol, yet it tastes like sodee-pop.

Does that make it good, its disguised potency, innocent and diabolical all at once? As a collegian, I’m sure I’d have said “Hell yeah!” As a more mature, refined, and sophisticated appreciator of cocktails, I have to say “Hell yes.”

You’ll note I only remove the exclamation point and turn to less colloquial language.

What’s most deceiving in the Long Island Ice Tea is the subtle balance it achieves, propping tequila against gin and gin against rum and rum against lemon and triple sec. I chose a recipe that threw coke in at the end to achieve the proper tea color (though, in my photographs, it didn’t) and even cola disappeared in the mélange of flavors. In television dramas people talk about ensembles. If, in this blog’s past, we’ve praised drinks for their achieving something greater than the sum of their parts, this drink deserves credit.

Is the Long Island Ice Tea my new favorite? No. It’s more than I can usually handle. As a vacation drink or as a celebration of good fortune though, it’ll do. I’ll return to it, I’m sure, when the occasion calls for it.

David’s Take: I almost wish it weren’t so good.

Jonathan’s take: If I want a drink that tastes like sweet tea, I think I will stick with the real thing.

Next Week (proposed by David):

Okay, so maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve been eying that Chartreuse I see in the liquor store—how can you not be curious about a liqueur that gives rise to a color and not the other way around?—and I’ve been dying to buy some. This week, I’m gonna (and hope Jonathan can do the same… sorry, bro). My choice of cocktail is The Last Word, a combination of Chartreuse, Gin, Maraschino, and lime juice. Who knows what it will taste like, but at least it looks beautiful. Of course I said the same thing about The Aviation