You Are Your Own Bartender Now. You Might As Well Be Good At It.

Also: How the Old Fashioned explains every other cocktail.

It’s 2020 in America, and there’s no place to drink but home. 

Yes, some bars are still open. Some bartenders are still making great drinks. But many bars are closed or only barely open. And even the ones that are technically open — well, who knows how long that will last? Sure, you can get a $16 takeout cocktail, and it might even be delicious. But you’re probably not getting the full $16 cocktail experience. 

This is the reality: You are your own bartender now. You may as well learn to be good at it. 

That’s what this newsletter is about — helping you make delicious, high-quality cocktails on your own, in the comfort and safety of your own home. 

Many guides to making cocktails are, not surprisingly, written by bartenders. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many cocktail books are full of useful tips, techniques, and recipes. I’ve learned a lot from them, and I plan to recommend many of them for further reading. 

But it means they are written by professionals who are in the business of making drinks not only to be consumed but to be sold, by people who live and breathe high-end booze. Many of them are full of recipes with expensive, hard-to-find ingredients, and custom concoctions that can be intimidating or difficult to make for novices, or even seasoned home bartenders. They don’t think about drinks and drink-making the way a home bartender might.  

I know, because I once was one of those novices. 

A decade ago, I didn’t know a rum from rye, a Negroni from a Moscow Mule. I couldn’t have made even the most basic Martini without looking up a recipe — and even then, I wouldn’t have been able to tell which recipes were worth making. 

I am not a professional bartender, and I’m not trying to teach you to do what a professional bartender does. I’m a guy who makes cocktails at home, and I like to think they’re pretty good. I learned to make good cocktails by reading a lot of books, buying a lot of bottles, and drinking — and making — an awful lot of drinks. Along the way, I made a lot of mistakes, but I also learned some things. What I hope to do is help you avoid the former by sharing the latter. 

I also went to a lot of bars, including some of the best cocktail bars in the country. I love those places, and no amount of home bartending perfectionism will ever replace the pure experience of a place like Dante, The Varnish, or The Columbia Room. Those places are perfect and magical, and I desperately hope to return to them soon. 

But in the meantime, if you just want to drink great drinks, you can learn to make them yourself. One benefit of doing this is that making those drinks yourself will cost you a lot less than going to a top-notch cocktail bar, at least on a per-drink basis. In many cases, that $16 cocktail will cost you just $2 or $3 if you make it at home. Also, making cocktails at home is incredibly fun and rewarding, and it will help improve your appreciation of bar cocktails when you have them.  

Now, I won’t shy away from pricey bottles when I think they’re called for. Nor will I completely avoid complex, resource-intensive projects. But I’ll try to help you decide whether batched drinks or custom ingredients that take a month or more to make (yes, really) are actually worth it. 

I’ll also spend a fair amount of time discussing fundamentals: basic techniques and ingredients, recipe variations and theory, important bottles and classic drinks. I don’t just want to teach you how to make cocktails, but how to think about them. 

Making cocktails is an art, and good bartenders often appear to be concocting liquid magic tricks. But making cocktails is also a kind of engineering exercise, with core principles and recurring structures that define virtually all classic and contemporary drinks. Cocktails aren’t just arbitrary recipes you follow. They are ideas and frameworks that vary and repeat, families and concepts as much as specific drinks and formulas. But of course, they are recipes too, and I’ll go over plenty of those along the way. 

And we’re going to start with the most important drink of them all: the Old Fashioned. 

The Old Fashioned, and Balancing Drinks

The first thing I want you to understand about the Old Fashioned is that I am wildly, absurdly enthusiastic about the drink. Not a week goes by that I don’t make at least a couple of them at home. With just a few main ingredients — bitters, sugar, and whiskey, stirred and served over ice, often with a garnish — a classic version is one of the easiest drinks to make at home, and also one of the easiest to master and make your own. 

But the reason I’m starting with the Old Fashioned isn’t just that it’s tasty and relatively simple to make. It’s that the Old Fashioned isn’t really a recipe. Instead, it’s a system, a template for making and understanding how cocktails are constructed. Indeed, it is arguably the system for understanding the vast majority of classic cocktails, and how to make them well. Once you understand the Old Fashioned, you have the foundation for understanding just about every other classic (and classically inspired) cocktail. It’s the one cocktail that explains every other drink. 

Nearly every Old Fashioned recipe you’ll find online goes something like this:

  • 2 dashes bitters

  • 1 teaspoon or so simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water)

  • 2 ounces whiskey

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir over ice, then strain into a rocks glass, over ice. Garnish with an orange peel. 

Yet this simple-seeming recipe is actually a structure, a form that can be repeated in an infinite number of variations. And at the heart of that form is a simple idea: balance.

Read enough cocktail books, talk to enough bartenders, and sooner or later, you will hear that drinks should be balanced. But it’s not always clear what this means, other than, “tastes good.” There’s something to that. But balance is more distinct. 

The concept is actually pretty easy to understand: It’s a spirit — in this case, whiskey — that has been balanced between two competing flavors, in this case, bitter and sweet. The whiskey provides the foundation of the drink. The bitters and the sugar support each other, balancing each other out by providing an equivalence in flavor. 

Those contrasting structural elements expand the drink’s taste profile, backing up and highlighting the whiskey that serves as the centerpiece. In some ways you can think of an Old Fashioned like a three-piece rock band: The singer/lead guitar player is the spirit, the whiskey, the star of the show, and he could probably be pretty interesting all on his own. 

But the bass and drums expand the sound, providing rhythm and backing that is complimentary, giving both depth and contrast. In most cases, you wouldn’t want the drums to be substantially louder than the bass, or vice versa: You’d want them to be roughly equal — to balance each other out. 

That’s what pretty much all classic cocktails are: They’re spirits, balanced between complementary and contrasting flavors that support each other. Sometimes those complements are sweet and bitter, sometimes they’re sweet and sour, sometimes they’re even more complex. But no matter how complex, it always comes back to this fundamental idea of balance, in which contrasting elements even each other out. That idea underlies just about every successful drink in the cocktail canon, as well as all those newfangled concoctions you run into at the sort of fancy cocktail bars you can’t go to anymore. 

Once you’ve been incepted by the notion that the Old Fashioned isn’t a recipe, but an idea, you can start to understand how the drink functions. Yes, I mean functions: Like tables, stools, spoons, and doors, all cocktails, no matter how elaborate they seem, have a form and a function. And the function of an Old Fashioned is to showcase whiskey with an expanded bitter/sweet taste profile. 

Bitters, Sugar, Whiskey

Practically speaking, this means that making an Old Fashioned requires making a series of choices. 

First, you have bitters. The most traditional recipe — and the one that you’re most likely to get at a bar — calls for two dashes of Angostura bitters, that venerable brand with a yellow top and an oversized label. For decades, Angostura was pretty much the only brand of bitters you could find without a lot of searching, and recipes that called for “bitters” without any further descriptor or brand name simply assumed that’s what you would be years. But over the last fifteen years or so, the bitters market has boomed. Corner liquor stores might sell you a dozen flavors. Amazon carries hundreds, from traditional aromatic and orange flavored bottles to more obscure variants, like Orinoco bitters

Which means that when making an Old Fashioned, you have a nearly infinite array of options — not just for single bottles, but for combinations. How many dashes will you use? How many different flavors of bitters? Certain bottles are more useful than others, but you can never really have enough. I typically keep 50 or so different bottles of bitters in my house — and if not for space limitations, I’d be tempted to buy many more. 

Second, you have sugar. The most classic Old Fashioned recipes, the ones that date back to the 1800s, when the Old Fashioned was known as the whiskey cocktail (and then, eventually, “improved” versions of the whiskey cocktail, which sparked a desire to return to the “old fashioned” version, hence the name) typically called for a sugar cube or a spoonful of sugar. A sugar cube or two can make for a great drink, but cubed sugar can be tricky and time-consuming to incorporate. 

That’s why many bartenders prefer syrups, in which sugar and water (and sometimes other flavoring ingredients, like cinnamon, vanilla, or fruit) are heated and combined into a thick liquid that mixes easily into a drink. 

But that just raises more questions: Which sugar to use? At what ratio of sugar to water? What about thickening agents, like gum arabic, or other flavors? I’m a syrups partisan myself, and I typically keep 3 to 5 different syrups in my refrigerator at any given time. But not all of them are strictly sugar: I also make honey syrup, and I sometimes use maple syrup (hello, pancakes). And if you want to really break the mold, you can use a sweet liqueur or fortified wine of some sort, like Benedictine, or Pedro Ximenez (PX) Sherry, a nutty, fortified, super-sweet dessert wine that sometimes serves as sweetener in cocktails. 

That’s the thing: The “sugar” in an Old Fashioned doesn’t actually have to be a sugar. It just has to play the part of one. A Monte Carlo is an Old Fashioned with rye, Benedictine, and, typically, a combination of Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. You can make a Jameson Old Fashioned that works in much the same way. 

Finally, there’s the whiskey itself. Even the least impressive liquor store carries a dozen or more bottles of the stuff, and the better booze outlets might carry hundreds of bottles. Depending on what state you live in, you might be able to order online, in which case, well, I already feel bad for you (or your spouse) the next time you look at your credit card bill. You can always explain away the bill by making drinks that are worth it. But how in the world do you choose? 

On the one hand, pick your favorite whiskey, the one you love to sip slowly by the fire on a cool, dark winter’s night. On the other hand, pick the cheapest stuff you can stand to drink, then dress it up with bitters and sugar that show off its best qualities — like giving a raggedy looking guy who’s been stuck in quarantine for nine months a haircut and putting him in a suit (hypothetically, of course). Or pick the whiskey that goes best with your favorite bitters, the one that seems to pair with it naturally, like ballroom dancers who don’t just go through the motions, but seem to have really great chemistry. There are as many options as there are bottles of whiskey. In fact, there are more.

That’s where things really get turned upside down. An Old Fashioned doesn’t have to contain whiskey. You can make a delicious Old Fashioned with just about any spirit — rum and mezcal are particularly good choices, but I’ve had Old Fashioneds made with odd bitter liqueurs and fruit brandy, even gin (that’s not for beginners, folks). If it’s distilled and alcoholic, someone has probably made an Old Fashioned with it, possibly even a good one. 

It gets weirder still: An Old Fashioned doesn’t even have to consist of a single spirit. You can split the foundation into multiple parts. The American Trilogy, for example, splits the spirit portion into rye and American apple brandy. The Conference, developed at my favorite bar in the world, Death & Co., is an Old Fashioned split four ways — between bourbon, rye, brandy, and calvados, a French apple brandy. (In addition to Angostura, it also uses Mole bitters, a rich, spicy, chocolate bitters that makes just about every drink taste better.) 

This sort of multi-part drink might look complex if you haven’t spent much time making cocktails, but it’s actually just an elaborate, slightly modified version of the basic recipe I started with: two ounces of spirit, a sweetener, and a few dashes bitters. And like all Old Fashioneds, it performs the same function — to show off the spirit, or in this case, spirits, and to highlight their relationship to each other. The Conference is a liquid argument that all of these spirits are friends and collaborators. 

This may seem like a lot, but it’s just a start. There’s plenty more to think about, from how to stir your drink and what ice to use to the choice of garnish and how to prepare it. These are all subjects for the future.

But if I leave you with anything, and if I can impress anything on you going forward, it’s this: The Old Fashioned is not a recipe, but an idea, a concept, a structure, a system on which nearly all cocktails rely. Learn that system, and you can learn to make and understand any cocktail.

To see how that system plays out in recipe form, here are a few easy Old Fashioned variants to try:

Tom Macy’s Old Fashioned

This clever yet essential version won Punch magazine’s Old Fashioned shootout in 2018. It uses high-proof rye and a custom bitters blend. This uses Wild Turkey 101 Rye, which is slightly more expensive and difficult to find than the more well-known Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, and significantly higher proof than standard Wild Turkey Rye. The high-proof rye gives the drink a spicy, peppery punch, with a warming, boozy kick that holds up when you dilute it.

Combine in a mixing glass, add ice and stir 30-40 times until chilled, strain over a single large cube, garnish with an orange peel.

Poor Man’s Old Fashioned

This is a surprisingly tasty version made using the cheapest whiskey I actually like: Evan Williams Black Label, which runs about $25 for a 1.75 liter bottle. You can skip the orange bitters if you don’t have them, but like the rug in Big Lebowksi, they help tie the other elements together. 

  • 1 dash Regan’s orange bitters (optional)

  • 2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters

  • 1.5 teaspoons rich demerara sugar syrup (2:1 demerara sugar to water)

  • 2 ounces Evan Williams Black Label 

Combine in a mixing glass, add ice and stir 30-40 times until chilled, strain over a single large cube, garnish with an orange peel.

Winter Old Fashioned

This version combines rye and maple syrup for a slightly richer, spicier drink that works especially well during cold weather. Also, it’s a great alternative if you happen to be out of demerara syrup.

Combine in a mixing glass, add ice and stir 30-40 times until chilled, strain over a single large cube, garnish with an orange peel.

Oaxaca Old Fashioned

Remember how I said you could make an Old Fashioned that didn’t involve whiskey? One of the most famous is the Oaxacan Old Fashioned, created by bartender Phil Ward more than a decade ago at Death & Co. in New York. In terms of ingredients, it looks very little like the other drinks on this list. But structurally, it’s almost exactly the same: two ounces of spirit, a bit of syrup — in this case, agave — and a few dashes of bitters.

  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 1 teaspoon agave nectar

  • 1 1/2 ounces El Tesoro reposado tequila

  • 1/2 ounce Del Maguey San Luis Del Rio mezcal

(If you don’t have, or can’t find, the El Tesoro or the San Luis Del Rio, you can substitute Espolòn Reposado tequila and Del Maguey Vida, both of which are much easier to find, and much less expensive. But it’s worth seeking out the correct bottles, which, while somewhat pricey, provide a livelier, more arresting flavor profile.)

Combine in a mixing glass, add ice and stir 30-40 times until chilled, strain over a single large cube, garnish with an orange peel — preferably one that’s been flamed.

Rich Demerara Syrup

I’ll write much more about syrups in a future edition, but for now: This is the syrup I use most often, and it’s especially useful for Old Fashioneds.

You can buy syrup online, but it’s better and cheaper if you make it yourself. The simplest way to make it is just to combine two parts demerara sugar with one part water in a saucepan — I typically use 16 ounces of sugar and 8 ounces of water — then heat on a stovetop right up to the point where it boils, stirring gently as you go. Once it starts to boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and let it warm for another 20 minutes, until the water and sugar to fully integrate.

Let the syrup cool on the counter for an hour, then pour into a plastic container with a lid. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month.

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Cocktail Library: The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World's First Classic Cocktail, with Recipes and Lore, by Robert Simonson. The definitive guide to the drink’s history and evolution, with a huge number of recipes.