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.
“I didn’t try a real Old-Fashioned ’til I moved to New York City and started bartending—oh, I get it now!” says Natasha Bermudez, head bartender at Llama San in Manhattan’s West Village.
That was in the early 2010s, when many on both sides of the bar were finally learning how to do justice to one of America’s oldest cocktails. For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Old-Fashioned had devolved—muddled citrus wedges at the bottom of the glass, toppings of soda water from the gun, maraschinos aplenty—but the modern cocktail renaissance was returning to the classic, balanced blueprint of bourbon, sugar and bitters. For a country in the grips of redefining drinks culture, it was an exciting template to build from.
“One of my bosses, Devon Tarby, once said that having restrictions when expressing your creativity actually pushes your creative limits in great ways,” says Alex Jump, bar manager at Death & Co. Denver. “And I think the Old-Fashioned is a great example of that.”
Forced to juggle drinks both baroque and approachable at the Mountain Time outpost of the legendary New York bar, Jump has found that seemingly minor tweaks can really elevate the Old-Fashioned. Her Thinking of a Place, for instance, marries the “herbal and lightly fruit-forward qualities” of Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon with pistachio-infused Cognac, yellow Chartreuse and strawberry syrup, turning a cocktail sometimes seen as brooding into a bright, sessionable drink, perfect for relaxing outside.
If Jump’s Old-Fashioned seems to have a culinary tilt, that’s intentional. Many contemporary bartenders, in fact, have come to realize the cocktail’s profile complements culinary flavors, and can be made even more food-pairing-ready with the addition of infused syrups, garnishes inspired by the kitchen and more.
Bermudez takes the cocktail in an explicitly meal-friendly direction with her Aki Old-Fashioned. She enhances what she sees as the “fresh” notes of Elijah Craig Small Batch with lightly muddled shiso leaf and a white sesame cane syrup. The nutty, woody riff pairs wonderfully with Llama San’s ambitious Nikkei cuisine (Japanese food as practiced in Peru).
“Dishes on the richer side, [the] saucier side, need a little bit of acidity and brightness to balance them,” she explains, citing the restaurant’s noted lobster and beef heart dish as a key example. “It’s smoky, it’s rich, it’s creamy—an [Old-Fashioned] can work perfectly alongside it.”
Like Bermudez, other top bartenders like to amplify the brightness and acidity of a cocktail whose standard formulation doesn’t highlight those notes. Alex Negranza, bar director for MARCH Restaurant and Goodnight Hospitality in Houston, makes a “ridiculously simple” Old-Fashioned variant, called the Enhanced Whiskey Cocktail, by upcycling discarded lemon peels into an oleo saccharum–style spiced citrus syrup. Black lemon bitters up the brightness further and add a drying element, while a small dose of maraschino liqueur offers richness and a bit of acid.
“You really don’t need to change much in an Old-Fashioned to introduce someone to something new and exciting,” he says.
Meanwhile, at Washington, D.C.’s Service Bar—a laid-back fried chicken and cocktail bar in the District’s U Street Corridor—co-owner Glendon Hartley makes a bitter Earl Grey and citrus peel syrup for his personalized spin, fittingly named The Bitter Citrus Old-Fashioned.
Hartley feels the bitterness of both naringin (a flavonoid found in citrus fruit pith) and oversteeped black tea pairs well with Elijah Craig Small Batch’s pleasant wood tannins. Despite using a mere three ingredients, the result is an unusually citrusy, bitter Old-Fashioned that is uniquely his own.
“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.”