The notion that the Old-Fashioned is more than a single recipe, indeed a category unto itself, found legs in the early years of the cocktail revival. The archetypal spirits-sugar-bitters template became a playground for craft bartenders to explore newly rediscovered spirits. These years saw a surge in applejack Old-Fashioneds, tequila Old-Fashioneds and even modern classics like the Oaxaca Old-Fashioned. It’s from this fruitful era that the rum Old-Fashioned emerged.
Today, the drink is often deployed as a tool to convert whiskey drinkers to rum, a category that even now lacks the generalized knowledge among drinkers enjoyed by most other spirits. “The rum Old-Fashioned is a way to show guests you can treat rum like whiskey—it doesn’t need to be mixed with fruit juice,” explained St. John Frizell, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance, Gage & Tollner and Sunken Harbor Club, where a panel of tasters recently convened for a blind tasting of 10 rum Old-Fashioneds submitted by bartenders across the country.
Joining Frizell and myself on the panel were Punch editor-in-chief Talia Baiocchi, Lost Lake co-owner Paul McGee and Tiki author Shannon Mustipher, who likewise sees the Old-Fashioned template as a useful ambassador for rum, labeling the cocktail “a gateway drug”—a reliable way to introduce a less-familiar spirit in a familiar format. The lineup of recipes, however, had something to offer the newly converted and the seasoned rum drinker alike. The most common complaint against the drink in the wild is that it can be cloying. “Most people build a rum Old-Fashioned like a rye Old-Fashioned and it ends up being too sweet,” explained McGee, “especially if they’re using an adulterated rum,” i.e., those with dosage, or added sugar.
For this reason, the choice of rum is crucial to the spirit-forward construction of the Old-Fashioned. The consensus among the panelists was that no single rum style or country of origin could lay claim to the Old-Fashioned, and that the drink was instead best served by a multi-island blend. “One of the things this drink should do is not let any of the styles really dominate,” said Frizell. Six of the 10 submitted recipes took the blended route.
In a format designed to let the spirit shine, any add-ons—from sweeteners to bitters to wild card liqueurs—need to be carefully considered. But of all the variables, the judges found the most fault with the bartender’s choice of garnish, preferring a lime over orange or lemon (or both), and gravitating toward a coin rather than a swath, which can leach into the drink as it sits, eventually overpowering the other flavors, even the rum. And the gravest mistake, according to Mustipher, “is to not let the rum shine.”
Taking first place was the rum Old-Fashioned of Jelani Johnson, former Clover Club and Gage & Tollner bartender and now the assistant distiller at New York’s Great Jones Distillery. The recipe calls for a blend of three rums: Mount Gay XO from Barbados, Hamilton 151-proof Demerara rum from Guyana and Smith & Cross from Jamaica, complemented by a teaspoon of rich cane sugar syrup and a dash each of Angostura and Bittermens ‘Elemakule Tiki bitters. “This drink is trying to do something, trying to take you to a Caribbean place,” said Frizell. “It doesn’t taste like a rye Old-Fashioned; it’s a rum Old-Fashioned.” The drink is stirred with an orange twist and served with a lime coin, adding just the right amount of aromatics for what McGee likened to a “Ti Punch–style serve.”
Coming in second place was the rum Old-Fashioned of Austin Hartman, owner of the now-closed Paradise Lounge in Queens, New York. The judges were able to immediately identify the rum, which McGee noted was “unmistakably Foursquare”—the Pappy Van Winkle of rum—on the first sip. Though the judges unanimously enjoyed the drink, which benefited from a creative falernum-Demerara syrup as the sweetener, as well as the notably higher proof of the rum (60 percent ABV), the panelists couldn’t help but wonder if the 12-year Bajan rum actually benefited from the Old-Fashioned treatment. “The whole point of an Old-Fashioned is to improve and elevate whatever that pour is,” explained Mustipher, and the judges agreed that the rum in question leaves little to improve upon. Existential questions aside, all found the drink to be “a delight,” as Frizell noted.
Taking third place was Kirk Estopinal of New Orleans’ Cane & Table. His recipe, which adds an unexpected bar spoon of Giffard apricot liqueur to a blend of Hamilton’s Jamaican and Guyanese rums, was deemed slightly “esoteric” with a subtle fruit backbone that still allowed the base spirit to shine. The judges’ only quibble was with the dusting of nutmeg on the surface of the drink, which felt unnecessary.
Finally, honorable mention went to Ryan Lotz of Shore Leave in Boston, whose recipe Mustipher called “zippy,” with a “bracing quality,” a key attribute of the Old-Fashioned format. It was considered by the judges to represent the ideal rum Old-Fashioned for rye drinkers. As McGee noted, “This is how you convert whiskey drinkers.”