Back in the days when Megan Cross would journal on her Blogspot—back in the days when everybody still used Blogspot—she would begin each entry the same way: “Dear Elijah.” There, she would unload “the wild rants of a whiskey woman” to the Internet at large. She’d discuss whatever was going on in her life at the moment, documenting the great times, and a few of the rough ones, too.
The “Elijah” in question—the Elijah to whom she was pouring out her heart online—was actually Elijah Craig, her favorite neat-sipping bourbon. Today, as the bar lead at Los Angeles’ Genghis Cohen, Cross honors her youthful Blogspotting days with the Dear Elijah Old-Fashioned, a clever take on the drink, with its constantly-shifting flavor profile.
“I wanted to keep the integrity of Elijah Craig by introducing flavors not common in an Old-Fashioned,” she explains. She mixes Heaven Hill’s small-batch Kentucky bourbon with the nutty Italian liqueur Frangelico, then pours it over ice. But not just any ice: a special ice blend designed to tease out the flavors of the bourbon, with toasted coconut, pecan bitters and saline frozen right in the actual glass.
As the Old-Fashioned continues to defend its title as the longest-reigning en vogue cocktail in America, many bartenders have turned to unexpected spirits—rum and mezcal, for example—to put their own stamp on the classic. But bourbon’s dominant caramel and vanilla notes play so well with such a variety of flavors that it allows for near-endless iterations. That’s one reason bartenders are still fixated on exploring the outer limits of the drink’s original blueprint.
“When working with an exceptional spirit, you really just want to enhance and celebrate the flavors built into the whiskey, without screwing it up and overpowering them,” says Ryan Casey, beverage director at The Dewberry, in Charleston, South Carolina. Rather than impose a vision, he uses the base bourbon as his guide. That’s the idea behind his Bee Is for Bourbon cocktail, which celebrates Elijah Craig’s natural honey, chocolate and banana notes by pairing each with a matching liqueur: Bärenjäger (a German honey liqueur), Tempus Fugit Crème de Cacao and Giffard Banane du Brésil.
The beauty of such a complex spirit, though, is that it can speak to so many different bartenders in so many different ways. “There’s something about Elijah Craig that reminds me of crisp nights and flannel jackets,” says Andrew Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club in Maine, who calls it the perfect “campfire bourbon.” If Casey tunes into banana and honey, Volk latches onto its hints of maple and fig. His resulting Old Figgy is fairly traditional in structure, only instead of sugar, he sweetens the drink with a housemade fig-and-maple syrup. Swapping ingredients in and out to amplify different elements of the drink is part of the joy of the Old-Fashioned.
Like Volk, Meaghan Dorman takes a certain comfort in the spirit’s soothing warmth, but wraps a sense of escapism around it: Her tiki-esque take on the Old-Fashioned was her favorite shift drink from way back when. “It made for a nice [nightcap] while I cleaned up,” she recalls. For the Crown Chelsea, the longtime beverage director of Raines Law Room in New York splits Elijah Craig with some Guyanese rum, while adding a little bit of orgeat to round it all out. A masterful Old-Fashioned is about nothing if not finding a perfect balance of flavors.
While many bartenders have opted to revise the drink with a thoughtful reconsideration of ingredients, others have focused on the integration of modern techniques. Anu Apte-Elford’s aptly-named Baroque Old-Fashioned may have a straightforward ingredients list—bourbon, bitters, simple syrup—but its minimalism stops there. The owner of Seattle’s Rob Roy first pits a cocktail cherry and injects it with a Jello-ized Old-Fashioned, then rests the booze-infused garnish in a “basket” made of a coiled orange peel. For the ice, she prefers a special bespoke “Rob Roy stick,” which she gets from Washington purveyor Creative Ice. She then cuts, carves and chisels it down even further, before allowing it to temper while she builds the drink. It’s a crazy amount of effort, but the only legitimate way to alter such a classic drink in Apte-Elford’s opinion.
“I pay more attention to the little details surrounding what I think is already a perfect cocktail,” explains Apte-Elford. “The Old-Fashioned is already so delicious and dialed in, you have to turn it up a notch without disturbing the integrity and beauty of what it already embodies.”