October 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 5
Overrated At the risk of touching off another conflagration between Union and Confederacy, I have to admit that the mint julep, a libation that on its home turf is more hotly debated and glorified than proper barbecue, more often than not fails to please, and for some fairly obvious reasons. The problem comes in its lack of balance. To take bourbon, which is by nature the sweetest whiskey—distilled, as it is by law, from a mash consisting of at least 51 percent corn—and combine it simply with sugar or sugar syrup and mint leaves, depending on which of the dozens of vociferously defended recipes you follow, is setting up a tripod with a missing leg, as it were. Most great cocktails consist of an alcohol blended with a sweetener and something sour or bitter, for balance. I have chanced across heretical recipes that add a couple of drops of Peychaud’s bitters, but rounding the drink out properly with some type of citrus or other juice would prove a sacrilege that would have purists screaming murder. I love bourbon and I love mint, but the thought of downing a tall julep, with all that alcohol and all that unmitigated sugar, makes my mouth thick and brings on reflections of hangovers sure to come.
Underrated Here, then, is roughly the same thing, done to an unimprovable turn yet largely ignored in the current boom of cocktail culture. Could it be simply the dowdiness of its moniker that causes the Old-Fashioned to be trampled underfoot in the heavy traffic of the younger drinker? One thinks invariably of a favorite aunt or of Grandpa’s hunting buddies downing a few over cards. It is aptly named, being as direct a descendant as we can tell from what may be the first real American cocktail. When bitters and vermouth began entering the American market in the early nineteenth century, they immediately changed the way people took their drinks, opening up the practice of mixing cocktails. Jerry Thomas, author of the first recipe book of American cocktails, cites an early version of the Old-Fashioned as simply whiskey, bitters, sugar, and water with a bit of lemon garnish. The drink evolved to include a wedge of orange and a cherry, all muddled with the sugar to release their aromatics, atop which the whiskey—rye makes a slightly grippier version than bourbon—and ice are added. There is also a school that gives it a goose of seltzer. The bitters and citrus balance the sweetness and allow a lyrical interplay with the hooch. If it got a PR makeover and were renamed the Old-School, you might see a serious spike in interest in this erstwhile star. But then, cocktails don’t care who drinks them, and what’s better than having an intriguing, history-drenched ace in the hole to pull out when everyone else in your party is ordering a vodka and tonic?