A matter of careful dilution and true balance that can only be achieved over time? Or a drink that can be made in seconds? The Old Fashioned is often seen as a barometer of a bartender's expertise. But has it unnecessarily been put on a pedestal? We asked two leading bartenders: do we really have to wait so long for our drink?
As a maker (and lover) of Old Fashioneds I have been asked countless times for the correct way to make one. I find myself telling people what I was told, with great authority, when I was a fledgling bartender making this drink for the first time, which is that a good Old Fashioned should take at least five minutes to make. I have since heard this so many times and from so many bartenders that I just assumed that this was the proper way for making this classic: Take sugar cube. Soak in bitters. Crush. Add small amount of spirit and ice and stir. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Garnish. Voila - the perfect Old Fashioned, as advocated by Dick Bradsell.
Much of bartending is about theatre and affectation and a good proportion of our business at Soulshakers over the past few years, and even my own work, has focused on perpetuating this theatre in a service environment. One look at our résumé and there can be no denying that we understand the value of theatre better than anyone. I would even argue that certain serves/cocktails require this, either through procedure or presentation, to assist in generating the desired perceived value for the customer.
The Old Fashioned is not one of those cocktails.
Does is take ten minutes to produce a good Old Fashioned? No.
Does the extra time spent in its protracted production have any influence on the quality of the end product? No.
I would concede however, that occasionally, certain customers expect to see the process of stirring as part of the purchase, but most just want the drink they've ordered as soon as possible.
When you make an Old Fashioned, the process of stirring allows us to accomplish three things, two of which are integral to making the drink well: adding water (dilution through ice melt) and chilling the drink (through ice movement). The third step creates the theatre, suspense and desire through the procedure itself but - and I repeat - this is not essential.
My point is that so long as the drink is cold and the correct volume of water has been added, the cocktail will be faultless and it matters little how we choose to get to that stage.
I have witnessed dozens of bartenders taking a 50ml jigger's worth of bourbon and slowly pouring it bit by bit into the glass as if this somehow changes the way in which the water is added and the desired temperature is achieved. I assure you, it does not.
After we get over ourselves, or perhaps as we get older (and wiser), we start looking for ways to accomplish the same goal in as few steps as possible without compromising on quality. Our extensive experience of large scale festivals and events has forced us to explore every potential avenue of production and we've adapted this when needed to the individual bar level. We've been able to produce Manhattans, Martinis and Old Fashioneds by the 100 all because we understand what is essential to producing a good cocktail and more importantly what can be omitted. And if you don't believe me, ask Dale DeGroff how he delivered immaculate service to the huge Rainbow Room dining hall from a small dispense bar. The answer of course is not through affected service from a precious, pretentious and dullard bartender, but premix and hastened procedure.
So long as the drink is perfect, either method is acceptable, but I would prefer not to waste eight minutes of my life getting there. After all, I could serve another five customers in that time.
If, on a Friday night, your favourite bartender tells you they're too busy or that it takes too long to make you an Old Fashioned, they're lying. And if they're not lying then they're probably not as good as you thought they were.
And if you're still not convinced, here's how not to be old fashioned. Take 50ml of your chosen bourbon, add 3-5ml of sugar syrup (1:1) and a dash of Angostura bitters. Stir all over ice, briskly and quickly for ten seconds, then add 20ml chilled mineral water, and stir again for ten seconds. Top up with extra ice and garnish. Total approximate serve time: 1 minute or 90 seconds, if you include the time to cut the garnish.
If you still think the theatre is essential, why not be charming or funny instead? Or impress with your excessive knowledge of ABVs and modern compounded bitters?