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So You Want an Easy Irish Whiskey Old Fashioned
A pair of stirred and boozy sippers featuring Jameson.
The thing about Irish whiskey is that it’s cheap, delicious, and reliable. It also makes for a great Old Fashioned. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, folks. This week’s newsletter is arriving just a little bit early.
When I go to divey hangout bars where fancy-shmancy cocktails aren’t the point — a category of bars, that, to be clear, I quite enjoy — I almost always order one of two things:
Jameson on the rocks
Occasionally when I tell people this, they react with skepticism or even disappointment. You, the ridiculous cocktail guy, drink Jameson on ice? That cheap stuff?
Yeah. I do. Happily. Because it’s not just good — it’s always good. And, relatedly, it’s always there. And no bartender can possibly mess it up.
Jameson is a modern marvel of mass-corporate spirits production — a well-made, palatable whiskey that is incredibly consistent every year, and both available and affordable in what seems like just about every bar in the world. Jameson is the McDonald’s french fries of spirits. It might be inexpensive. It might be basic. Some people might think of it as a little bit déclassé. But unless you just hate the entire category, it’s hard to deny that it’s pretty damn satisfying. Jameson requires no frills to be tasty.
If anything, frills actually complicate things, because Jameson is slightly difficult to pair well in cocktails. Not impossible, mind you, but it doesn’t always play well with other bottles, and outside of a few bars that specialize in Irish whiskey cocktails, it’s often misused in cocktails. (I’ve had more than a few ill-advised Jameson concoctions at less-adept bars.)
Not only is Jameson rather smooth, it’s also quite light in body, and while the flavor profile isn’t exactly muted, it’s actually somewhat delicate. This makes it easy to drink, but also demands some care when mixing with other ingredients. There’s a reason that, for many decades at the end of the 20th century, Jameson was basically treated as a shots-and-sips whiskey, aside from the occasional (usually bad) Irish Coffee.
It’s more than possible to make a great cocktail with Jameson. The trick, as with all cocktails, is to get the pairing right — to embrace and understand the whiskey’s delicacy rather than fight against it. So if you have a bottle at home, and you are looking to make something slightly elevated for St. Patty’s Day, you can also use it to make some great cocktails. In particular, it makes a great base ingredient for an Old Fashioned. Or, if you’re in the mood for variety, two of them!
The Bénédictine Option
Earlier this year, we looked at a number of drinks involving Bénédictine, the weird-yet-versatile herbal-sweet liqueur that serves as an integral part of so many classics. As it turns out, the Bénédictine also makes a surprisingly effective sweetener in an Irish Whiskey Old Fashioned.
Bénédictine is a big, heavy ingredient, a bruiser and a bully in the glass. It’s got a heavy body and a pushy, complex earthy-spice-rack flavor. But, perhaps surprisingly, that makes it a great match for the comparatively subdued Jameson. It’s a classic contrasting duo: Jameson plays the quiet, honest straight man, while Bénédictine plays the loud and rowdy cut-up that always brings the party.
This particular drink comes from Jack McGarry, a bartender at the Dead Rabbit in New York City, a bar that specializes in complex, advanced Irish whiskey cocktails. (I’m quite excited to go back in a few weeks.) It’s the very first Irish whiskey cocktail I ever learned, and one of the first Bénédictine cocktails I ever made; I have almost certainly made dozens of them over the years not only for myself but for friends. I’ve never found someone who doesn’t like this drink. Like Irish whiskey at a dive bar, it never fails.
Regular readers of this newsletter will recognize the structure of this drink: At heart, it’s just an Irish Whiskey Monte Carlo — a rye/Bénédictine Old Fashioned — with a slightly bigger portion of Benedictine and the addition of orange bitters. As always, the best way to understand new drinks is to understand old drinks.
As with the Monte Carlo, you can make a reasonable case that technically this drink is a kind of Manhattan, since it uses a sweet-and-spice liqueur to sweeten the whiskey. The Bénédictine performs a function in this drink that really does resemble the sweet vermouth in a Manhattan. But it’s served on ice, drinks like a spicy, herbal Old Fashioned, and was labeled an Old Fashioned by its creator, so that’s what we’ll go with.
One small change I’ll make to McGarry’s spec: He calls for Jameson Black Barrel, which is aged in double charred barrels for a more powerful burnt oak effect. It’s good stuff, and you’re welcome to pick up a bottle. But it’s definitely more expensive, and you probably don’t have one already. I find this drink works quite well with ordinary green bottle Jameson.
Sometimes when I serve this to friends, I call it the Irish Catholic, since it’s built on Irish whiskey and booze developed by Catholic monks. But that’s not the official name.
Irish Whiskey Old Fashioned
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
¾ ounce Benedictine
2 ounces Jameson or Jameson Black Barrel
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass
Add ice, then stir until chilled.
Strain into a rocks glass over a large cube of ice.
Garnish with an orange peel.
A Honey Apple Cinnamon Irish Whiskey Old Fashioned
I’ve been making McGarry’s Benedictine-accented Old Fashioned for years. But I decided this year that I wanted to try my hand at making my own Irish whiskey Old Fashioned. This is the very first Irish whiskey cocktail I’ve developed myself, and I took a rather different approach to the pairing problem, embracing the lightness and delicacy of Jameson rather than offsetting it with something bolder.
As I was working on this drink, I was also writing about the rye-rum-brandy triangle of substitution and addition, and while Irish whiskey is obviously not part of that trio, that idea was on my mind.
I wanted to pair Irish whiskey with another spirit that would create a pleasant harmony, while still foregrounding the Irish whiskey. So I started to think about flavor combinations for a split base drink.
In addition to its light body and smooth character, Jameson has a pronounced vanilla note, along with a backbone of mellow nutty spice. Peppery rye might conflict with the vanilla, and molasses-y rum seemed like it could just get bogged down. But I quickly landed on American apple brandy — specifically, Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy, which you’ve seen before in drinks like the Jack Rose —- as a likely match. You don’t even need to taste to have a pretty good hunch that it will work. Apple-vanilla sounds pretty good, right?
Regular readers will know by now that I often use demerara gum syrup as the sweetener for drinks in the Old Fashioned universe. But it came out heavy and over the top in this drink; it seemed to be fighting Jameson’s natural character.
I wanted something a little lighter, and a little more distinctive. So I ended up going with a 3:1 honey syrup (three parts honey whisked with one part water). It’s smoother and more delicate, just like the Jameson. Now I had apple-vanilla-honey. This was going well.
For the bitters, I cycled through a number of exotic options — Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters! Dandelion and Burdock Bitters! Old Forester Smoked Cinnamon Bitters! — most of which just demonstrated that I have far too many bottles of bitters. Ultimately, though, I wanted something that people could make at home without having to order a specialized bottle of bitters. So I stuck with the classic: Angostura Aromatic bitters.
And yet…the cinnamon flavor addition from the Smoked Cinnamon Bitters was pretty great. It gave me a drink with vanilla, apple, cinnamon, and honey as primary flavors. I really didn’t want to lose that cinnamon note, but I want to incorporate it into the drink in a less obscure way. So I decided to garnish this with a cinnamon stick, which gives it just a whiff of extra spice.
(When you’re creating recipes, you should mostly think about what you have on hand. But if you want other people to make them, or you want them to be portable for making outside your own home, you should also think about accessibility, which is one of the reasons I try to focus on core ingredients and bottles that can be used many different ways. It’s a hard balance to strike, and there are inherent limitations: No two home bartenders have the exact same setup, and everyone has different tastes and different standards for what makes it onto their bar cart. Plus there’s always the question of local availability. But it’s safe to say I’m probably not going to spend a whole lot of time writing about drinks that, say, use a single teaspoon of lychee-li liqueur.)
The resulting drink is lighter and more delicate than a rye or bourbon Old Fashioned. It’s fairly complex but not at all challenging, with every ingredient intended to make it all go down easy. The honey in particular makes this almost drink like gentle black tea. If you have a friend who is skeptical about your boozy, brooding whiskey drinks, but doesn’t inherently hate liquor, this might be the way to coax them in. Unlike Batman movies, whiskey drinks don’t have to be all moody darkness and gloom.
Speaking of movies, I’ll name this one after one of my favorite actors, who, among his many talents, has the ability to take terrible dialogue in crappy films and make it sound incredibly polished and smooth.
Liam Neeson Monologue
2 dashes Angostura Aromatic bitters
1 tsp 3:1 honey syrup*
½ ounce Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy
1 ½ ounces Jameson Irish whiskey
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass.
Add ice, then stir until chilled.
Strain into a rocks glass over a single large piece of ice.
Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
*Whisk three parts honey with one part room temperature water. Store in the refrigerator.
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