Over the past century, the Old-Fashioned has served as a barometer for the state of the cocktail world. Its days as a muddled fruit-salad dressed with whiskey marked a nadir in modern mixology. Its return to form in the early 2000s, meanwhile, mirrored the rise of the nascent cocktail revival and coincided with a boom in American whiskey. Today it sits comfortably atop its throne, as both a hallowed symbol of the second Golden Age of cocktails and one of the most popular drinks in the country.
“I started at Clover Club in 2009 and that was the time when all of this stuff was coming together,” recalls Tom Macy of first encountering the archetypal template consisting of spirit, sweetener and bitters. “Applejack Old-Fashioneds, tequila Old-Fashioneds, rum Old-Fashioneds—I remember that being a really early thing I was into.”
As a partner and head bartender at Brooklyn’s Clover Club, a bar known for its classics-driven menu, Macy is particularly equipped to tackle the iconic cocktail. “It’s easy to make a solid Old-Fashioned,” he says, “but it’s always about maximizing. To really get a strong and consistent recipe, you have to think about what the drink is about and what flavors you want to shine and how you want them to relate to each other and then take and isolate each one and build it back up.”
This is precisely what Macy did when crafting his current Old-Fashioned recipe, the result of over 40 different variations tested over several years. “I really took it apart,” says Macy, “I tried different ryes, I tried different bourbons, I tried split bases.”
As the backbone of the recipe, the whiskey choice is arguably the most crucial decision in any Old-Fashioned formula. Macy opts for rye rather than bourbon: “There’s this savoriness to rye that kind of dispenses any hint of lingering, cloying sweetness,” he says, highlighting the fact that the Old-Fashioned is essentially just sweetened whiskey. (“I feel like if I were to make a perfect bourbon Old-Fashioned that would be a whole other process. If you really get down to the nuts and bolts they’re almost two different drinks,” he says.) Macy’s recipe calls specifically for Wild Turkey 101 Rye. “It’s definitely rye, but it has sort of a nice buttery richness, too,” he notes.
For the sweetener, Macy landed on a teaspoon of 2:1 demerara syrup, which has become the go-to for many Old-Fashioned recipes. “I know demerara makes a good Old-Fashioned, but I wanted to know how much it mattered,” he explains. To arrive at demerara Macy tested a number of sugar varieties including standard simple syrup, rich simple syrup and both white and brown sugar cubes. “The ritual of muddling sugar cubes is really romantic and great if you’re making one or two Old-Fashioneds,” says Macy, but, he explains, a syrup allows for greater control and consistency, while demerara, specifically, adds a caramel note that plays well with whiskey.
In what has become something of a signature for Macy, the bitters component calls on a blend of Angostura, Bitter Truth Orange Bitters and Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters, dubbed “Dad’s Bitters” by fellow Clover Club bartender Jelani Johnson. The latter enhances the clove and cinnamon notes of the Angostura while the former lends a fruity finish. “It has a nice bitterness and also has bright orange that isn’t too candied.”
The finishing touch comes in the form of both a lemon and orange twist, which together, like the choice of rye and bitters, keeps the drink from veering too far towards the sweet end of the spectrum. In a blind-tasting of 17 Old-Fashioneds from top bartenders, Macy’s version took top honors. But he admits that, while he’s pleased with this version, he’s still not quite finished.
“It’s this deep rabbit hole that I fell into,” he says, “and I’m still tumbling down.”