“You can always rely on an Old-Fashioned being what it is: boozy and delicious,” says Alisha Neverson, bartender at Brooklyn’s Leyenda. Yet at the same time, it’s a drink that can be “jazzed up” to fit a wide range of styles, especially “if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone.”
While the Old-Fashioned endures as one of America’s oldest cocktails, bartenders continue to innovate and tinker with the drink, teasing out layers of flavor and working with techniques that spotlight their individual style. The traditional blueprint—whiskey sweetened with sugar and spiced with a dash of bitters—remains evident, even amid these modifications.
For example, Lynnette Marrero has developed two separate Old-Fashioned riffs, each fine-tuned for separate restaurant bar concepts. Her Taboo, which appears on the menus at Llama Inn (Manhattan) and Llama San (Brooklyn), includes a housemade tamari caramel syrup to play up the “nice chocolate-y finish” in the Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon she uses as the base. The tamari syrup and a sweet miso tincture nod to the Japanese-influenced dishes served at the restaurant; the name of the drink references a Japanese samurai film.
By comparison, the autumnal Three Bites of the Apple she developed for Wonderbar, her recently opened bar in upstate New York, uses a housemade apple cider–sherry syrup to add nuanced sweetness while also coaxing out stone fruit and cinnamon notes from the bourbon—pure Hudson Valley.
At Brooklyn’s Leyenda, Neverson and proprietor Ivy Mix find a way to weave into the classic whiskey-based cocktail the bar’s emphasis on Latin American and Caribbean spirits and culture. Their Old Sister Tamarind features housemade “Tam Jam,” made with sweet-sour tamarind and brown sugar, for sweetness, verjus (the pressed juice of unripened grapes) and celery shrub for acidity and brightness, and a splash of saline solution for polish. The drink derives its depth from the unexpected base of Elijah Craig Bourbon combined with a measure of Jamaican rum.
While many bartenders look to adjusted ingredients to make the Old-Fashioned their own, others find inspiration in playing around with technique. At the East Village’s Pouring Ribbons, head bartender Devin Kennedy turns to sustainable methods that yield “a lighter take” on the drink. His Reverb gives citrus peels a second life in a spiced oleo saccharum that echoes the whiskey’s spice tones; the drink also gets a dose of nutty-fruity cream sherry, to amplify the baked apple and fig notes in the bourbon.
Although the Old-Fashioned is not traditionally considered a dessert cocktail, San Diego bar owner Erick Castro (Polite Provisions, Raised by Wolves) developed a Bitter Mocha Old-Fashioned that he likens to an amaro-accented vanilla mocha. “I really wanted to put together flavors that brought out the natural toasted vanilla that I got from the bourbon itself,” Castro explains. In particular, he homed in on bitter chocolate and roasted coffee notes, which he plays up with chocolate bitters and coffee amaro, respectively.
This is only one of many, many riffs on the versatile classic Castro has developed over decades. “The Old-Fashioned is my favorite cocktail,” he says. “It always will be, just because it’s an exercise in economy. It shows how you can create wildly complex flavors with an absolute minimum of ingredients.”
During this year’s Old-Fashioned Week (October 16-25), Elijah Craig Bourbon will donate up to $100,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. Funds raised through Old-Fashioned Week’s upcoming promotions will go toward direct financial assistance, grants to nonprofit partners working to address the needs of restaurant workers during this crisis, and to a zero-interest loan program for small businesses starting back up. To find out more, visit OldFashionedWeek.com.