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The Mystery of the London-Style Old-Fashioned

While the Old-Fashioned experienced a dark age during the 1990s, London managed to uphold its unique—and slightly mysterious—preparation of the drink. Robert Simonson on Britain's odd interpretation of the American classic.

The 1990s were not a good decade for the Old-Fashioned. The classic cocktail’s previous heyday—the two decades following World War II—was a distant memory. If a bartender remembered the drink at all, they’d use low quality well whiskey combined with an orange slice and maraschino cherry, often muddled, and top the resultant compote with seltzer or soda.

A couple corners of the world did, however, serve as incubators for the drink. But each came with serious provincial strings attached. One haven was the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota, where the Old-Fashioned’s popularity never faded. But if you ordered it there, chances are it would be made with domestic brandy and plenty of fruit. London never forgot the cocktail either, and never adopted the fruit-laden “American style.” But London’s version had its own quirks.

In 2002, Dale DeGroff, the godfather of the American cocktail renaissance, flew to London to do some consulting work. At that point, the London craft cocktail scene was miles ahead of New York’s. Entreprenuer Oliver Peyton’s trailblazing Atlantic Bar & Grill, a sprawling night spot which opened in 1995 in the heart of the West End, had put the cocktail bar front and center again, and nurtured bartenders who went on to open other influential bars such as LAB. DeGroff —who made his reputation as chief drink-slinger of Manhattan’s retro-glamorous Rainbow Room and all-around ambassador of the cocktail craft—encountered creative bartender practices at every turn. Many were inspiring. Others were curious. At least one was confounding.

A customer who ordered an Old-Fashioned in London back then needed patience. The way the city’s bartenders made it, the drink was built incrementally, like a sand castle, and took at least five minutes.

“While they made it, they explained to the customer how they had to add each individual ice cube separately and stir for another 30 seconds,” recalled DeGroff. “Then add another cube, another 30 seconds. The customer would ask, ‘Well, can’t I just have it?’ They’d say, ‘Well, if you want the flavor the way it should be, if you want the proper dilution, you have to let me finish.’”

Angus Winchester, Tanqueray’s global brand ambassador, remembers the Old-Fashioned preparation as being a three-stage process. Bitters and sugar were put in the glass, plus one third of the bourbon, and one third of the ice. The mixture was then stirred. And stirred. Then the second third of the bourbon and ice was introduced. More stirring. Finally, the last third of the whiskey of ice joined the mix. Further stirring. Five to six minutes later, some poor sap had his drink.

But where, and with whom, had the odd methodology originated? The Old-Fashioned has never been the speediest of bar creations, particularly if you’re muddling either a sugar cube (old school) or fruit (new school). But it’s doubtful that, over the drink’s 200-year history in America, it every required five minutes to turn one out.

“The bartenders in London were convinced it tasted better,” explained DeGroff. “We all know dilution is important. It certainly is. But, as an Old-Fashioned drinker, I’d much rather have the dilution occur while I’m drinking it and taking sips, not at the bar. I want it to get better on my watch, not yours.”

Ben Reed, who made his name as the bartender at Mayfair’s posh Met Bar—a phenomenally popular and terribly exclusive hotel bar that was a celebrity magnet during the late ‘90s—recalled the laborious Old-Fashioned execution as a way that bartenders of the day might command respect from patrons who still thought of tending bar as a dead-end profession.

“This was something that a few of us actually advocated at the time,” he explained. “We wanted to educate the younger bartenders that some drinks shouldn’t be rushed, in an attempt to get people to take us more seriously. It felt like really crafting a drink lent us more gravitas.”

DeGroff recalled a more cynical motivation. “It was their ‘money drink,’” he said. “That’s what they called it. By the time they were done, the customer would think, ‘Oh, this poor SOB is taking so long over my drink,’ and they’d lay a tip on them.”

But where, and with whom, had the odd methodology originated? The Old-Fashioned has never been the speediest of bar creations, particularly if you’re muddling either a sugar cube (old school) or fruit (new school). But it’s doubtful that, over the drink’s 200-year history in America, it ever required five minutes to turn one out.

Like most of London’s modern cocktail history questions, the path leads back to Dick Bradsell, the granddaddy of the UK cocktail revival. Bradsell—who manned the eponymous Dick’s Bar inside Peyton’s Atlantic Bar & Grill and has been behind dozens of cocktail programs for important bars since then—was an early advocate of David Embury’s iconic cocktail book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, which was first published by the American attorney in 1948. Embury indicated that the Old-Fashioned, as originally made, took a full twenty minutes to construct, because the bartender had to first spend a great deal of time and effort dissolving the raw sugar in a little water.

According to Winchester, Bradsell took this to heart. But, in the name of practicality, he cut the time down by two-thirds. “He used to take six minutes to make an Old-Fashioned,” said Winchester. “What he would say is, the bartender’s transferring his energy into the drink. Now, if you’re Dick Bradsell, you can get away with saying you’re transferring your energy into the drink. But because there’s so much monkey-see, monkey-do, many bartenders did it this way,”—simply because Bradsell did it.

“It was Embury, translated by Bradsell, and then copied by many others,” added Winchester, summing up the situation succinctly.

Still, Bradsell wasn’t apparently married to the lengthy preparation. “I remember doing a party with him in ’98,” said Wayne Collins, who came of age tending London bars during the ‘90s. “We had 300 people who wanted Old-Fashioneds. We had sugar, bitters, whiskey, ready to go. We put two cubes of ice in it, stirred it, and got it the fuck out.”

The final key to unlocking the mystery of the London Old-Fashioned, then, lay with Bradsell. So I sought him out. Bradsell still works as a bartender—you can find him a few nights a week at the Pink Chihuahua, a divey little joint beneath a commonplace Mexican restaurant in the Soho section of London. But unless you visit the bar, getting ahold of him is notoriously difficult. Bradsell does answer texts from certain trusted people, however. One of them is Jared Brown, the London-based cocktail historian, who asked Bradsell about the London Old-Fashioned.

“That’s just how I was taught to make it by Ray Cooke of the Zanzibar club,” Bradwell wrote Brown. “Dale [DeGroff] said it was just sweet whisky but we sold a lot of them. Used to be my favourite drink. Brings out the flavour of the spirit, etc.”

The Zanzibar was a private club in London and one of the first places Bradsell bartended, in the late ‘70s. His mentor there was one Ray Cooke. Cooke turned him on to the Embury book. So, it seems, he, along with Bradsell, bears the ultimate blame/credit for turning the London style of the Old-Fashioned into a preening time-waster.

Today, you can still find London bars that take their time with the drink in the Bradsell-Embury-Cooke style. But, with the global spread of information among the international bartender community, the tradition is fading.

Bartender Dan Priseman is a bartender that works at NOLA, an East London bar that has a way with American classic cocktails—particularly those associated with New Orleans. Priseman learned to make them in the slow addition fashion, but never understood the need to make it a long, slow process.

“It seemed magical to me, but my brain didn’t understand this need to make it a long, slow process, as in practical terms it isn’t necessary,” he says. “Now I am all about speed, efficiency and consistency, and the theatre of the slow mix comes last,” he continued. “I can bang out a great Old-Fashioned in a few seconds on a busy Friday night, or take five minutes and stir it down slowly on a quiet Tuesday evening. It doesn’t matter which to me, as long as the customer takes the first sip and pulls that face where they think it’s tasty but a little strong, and on the last sip thinks it’s perfect and wants another.”

Photo reprinted with permission from The Old-Fashioned by Robert Simonson, copyright (c) 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photography (c) 2014 by Daniel Krieger.