Elijah Craig Bourbon’s annual Old-Fashioned Week returns for its second year supporting the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, October 15-24. Sign up your bar or restaurant to participate by featuring Elijah Craig Old-Fashioned riffs on your menu.
When Glendon Hartley was first introduced to the most quintessential of American cocktails, the Old-Fashioned, he was shocked. The son of West Indian immigrants, Hartley found himself working at a pre-Prohibition-style cocktail bar and being taught the classic spec. “My trainer put Angostura bitters in the cocktail as he was going over the steps, and I literally said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to cook with that?!’” Hartley recalls. “Being West Indian, my family always used Angostura to cook with, so I was beyond surprised that people were [drinking] it.”
Hartley had been inspired by a long line of Trinidadian restaurateurs in his family to enter the world of hospitality, and he quickly fell in love with making cocktails. He had begun bartending on the side while attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in the early to mid-aughts, before moving to Washington, D.C. Over the past 18 years, he has bounced around the District, creating cocktail menus for places like BlackSalt Fish Market, Lost Society and the Cava Mezze restaurant group. Today, he co-owns Service Bar, a laid-back fried chicken and cocktail bar on the U Street Corridor, which he opened with Chad Spangler in 2016. (He also has a Peruvian restaurant, Causa, about to open.)
Early in his career, he was very by-the-book when it came to creating new drinks. “There was a point over a decade ago when I wouldn’t even make you an Old-Fashioned if I didn’t have any raw brown sugar cubes,” says Hartley. “Nowadays, if I see someone using a sugar cube to make an Old-Fashioned, I find myself questioning their [efficiency] as a bartender. Just natural progression, I guess.”
With time, he’s loosened up. He also has begun infusing his West Indian heritage into his cocktails, creating unique drinks like a West Indian Old-Fashioned made with curry powder and chipotle cacao bitters. And he’s found himself using his background in design and aesthetics to produce custom pottery specifically for beverages. If that sounds needlessly precious, rest assured that Hartley remains all about simplicity, especially when it comes to the Old-Fashioned.
“You only have four ingredients to work with, so make them count!” he insists, noting how a drink’s flavor profile can quickly go in different directions by adding just a minuscule amount of a certain liquid. “I always try to start with a great spirit, like Elijah Craig Small Batch, and from there, I choose my supporting cast wisely.”
Working in a fun but high-volume cocktail bar means efficiency is critical, and that’s one reason he often steeps teas and other botanicals into his syrups, bitters and even ice, thereby adding more complexity and flavor to a single ingredient. He likewise considers critical a drink’s garnish, an often-ignored aspect of the Old-Fashioned among home bartenders.
“This cocktail can truly define your style as a bartender,” says Hartley. “I believe all the ingredients you choose to use say something about who you are.”