The Old Fashioned Cocktail
This particular cocktail is rather famous, and if you’re a whiskey fan, you’re bound to have run across it before. It’s called “The Old Fashioned,” and it’s the granddaddy of whiskey cocktails. Now, with any cocktail that’s been around for as long as the old fashioned, there’s usually some debate about how it’s “traditionally” made. But across all the Old Fashioned recipes in all the land, three ingredients remain constant:
Whiskey, Sugar, and Aromatic Bitters.
So, to make an Old Fashioned, I take a Domino’s white sugar cube and place that in the bottom of a mixing glass. Then, I soak that with several dashes of Embitterment Aromatic Bitters, which are available for purchase on modernbarcart.com/products. They’re affordable, they’re certified USDA organic, and you can have them shipped right to your door.
After I add the bitters, In order to help the sugar dissolve more easily, I add just a splash of filtered water to that–maybe ¼ to ½ oz. And I take a muddler and grind that whole mixture together in the bottom of the mixing glass until the sugar, bitters, and water are well mixed into a sort of slurry.
Then, I add a scoop of ice and 2 to 2.5 oz of Rye or Bourbon whiskey, and I stir for about 30 seconds. And the stirring here does a couple things. First, it helps chill down the drink, but second, as the ice melts, it actually provides a bit more water to the beverage, allowing the sugar to further dissolve and integrate into the drink.
When I’m done stirring, I strain the liquid contents into a rocks glass that has a single large cube, and then I garnish the whole thing with an “expressed” orange peel, which I leave in the drink.
So, there you have it. The Old Fashioned recipe. This recipe can also be found in the show notes and in the cocktail recipes section of modernbarcart.com, so feel free to revisit these steps online if you want a quick refresher.
So, I hope at least some of you had the opportunity to pause this episode and make yourself a delicious Old Fashioned, but if you’re at work or something, do what I always recommend—make an Old Fashioned–IN YOUR MIND. With that, I invite you to sit back and think frosty thoughts as I run through everything you need to know about ice and home bartending.
Water: The Prequel
If you think about it, ice has literally shaped the world we live in. Right now, in 2017, we’re concerned about the state of the polar ice caps. We’re freaking out about an iceberg the size of Delaware that has just detached itself from Antarctica. But humans a few millennia ago didn’t have the same relationship with ice. Sure, it’s probably what allowed them to cross from Asia into North America by means of the Bering Strait, but it was also a symbol of the threat of nature. When a primitive band of hunter gatherers lived in the shadow of a massive glacier, they were literally in the presence of something with the power to move mountains and carve massive valleys. We still can see the evidence of that power in many of America’s wild places today.
But what does this have to do with cocktails? Not much, except that the power of ice is all due to the unique properties of a little molecule called H20.
See, water is the George Costanza of substances—it does the opposite, thermodynamically speaking, that is. Whereas many other substances expand when heated, water become “smaller” in a manner of speaking, transitioning eventually to a gaseous state. And whereas many other substances contract or become smaller when exposed to cold, water expands.
When was the last time you cursed after hitting a really nasty pothole on the road? Well, you’ve got water to thank for those. Because when water seeps into an unsuspecting crack in the pavement and then freezes, the expansion of the water forces that crack to widen simply by virtue of the fact that the water has nowhere else to go when it expands.
Again. What does any of this have to do with cocktails?
Well, we know that the primary function of ice in the production or enjoyment of a cocktail is to “chill down” the drink. And that means a thermodynamic reaction is happening wherein an exchange of energy is taking place. So, as bartenders, when we mix our fancy little drinks, we are literally harnessing the same physical power a water trickle uses to create a pothole and that a glacier uses to carve a valley. But we’re using it in a slightly different way.
See, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, and so it makes sense for us to ask, in the context of a cocktail, “where is the energy?” Well, heat is a type of energy, and when you pour your room temperature cocktail ingredients into your shaker or mixing glass, their molecules are moving at a given speed. That’s what makes them “liquid” components.
The molecules in the ice, however, are moving at a much slower rate. And when the cold ice comes in contact with the relatively warm liquid cocktail ingredients it absorbs some of that energy, which causes it to melt. Both the absorption of that heat and the relatively cool water that results from the melting are what chills down your cocktail. So, it’s not that ice donates its coldness to the drink, but rather that it absorbs some of the heat energy from the initial solution and must sacrifice a bit of itself in the process. That sacrifice, by the way, is what bartenders call “dilution.”
Water: The Universal Solvent
Another really important characteristic of H2O is that it’s what scientists refer to as “The Universal Solvent,” meaning that it’s really good at dissolving things.
The reason I bring this up is because before you even think about your ice, you should probably ask yourself the potentially unsettling question: What’s really in my water?
We know that municipal water is laced with potentially benign substances like Fluoride and perhaps chlorine, and these definitely have the capacity to affect the way your water (and therefore you ice) tastes. We also know thanks to national news sources that the city of Flint, Michigan has been without clean water for two years, experiencing life-threatening heavy-metal toxicity levels in their regular tap water. And if it can happen in one city, it’s probably happening in other places as well.
I say these things not to concern you, but to make the point that cocktail people tend to be particular about flavor, and part of that is doing the due diligence to determine what you’re actually putting into your body when you make a drink. So, I’m not qualified to make scientifically sound claims about the status of your drinking water, but when it comes to ice, there are a few simple options for ensuring purity.
One easy step would be to make sure you run your water through a water filter before freezing it. You can use various filtration pitchers, faucet attachments, or even refrigerator filters to make this happen. Another option would be to purchase distilled water or mineral water at the store and use that. The difference between the two is that distilled water is (in theory) devoid of any flavor because it is boiled, turned into steam and then re-condensed into water which ensures purity. Spring water or mineral water, on the other hand, can contain certain minerals (and maybe other stuff) depending on where it’s sourced from and how it’s treated by the manufacturer.
Surprisingly, water is its own rabbit hole, with people claiming that certain limestone filtered water actually makes your whiskey taste better, and debating the best water to be used in the distillation of spirits, but for right now, I think we need to turn our attention to what happens when water molecules slow down and enter their solid state.