First of all, I promise this was in pursuit of knowledge... Not in pursuit of a hangover... Because when I started this project, I had never made an Old Fashioned in my life, despite ordering one every time I felt a bit fancy in a bar. I chose this particular cocktail not just because it's my favourite but because of the simple little ritual that making it entails:
Take a single sugar cube and place it in a tumbler.
Wet it down with a few dashes of angostura bitters and a teaspoon full of soda water.
Muddle until the sugar is dissolved then turn the glass on an angle to it coat the inside.
Add one large ice cube and pour in enough whiskey (traditionally bourbon) to half submerge the ice cube.
Garnish with a sliver of orange peel and serve.
So simple, you might wonder how it took me so long to master. This is how:
Being the first day I decided to do this, on a whim, I looked up the recipe thinking "how hard can it be" and that I had all the ingredients and realised I didn't so I had just whiskey with a slice of orange then watched a youtube video of someone making the recipe enviously.
Lesson one: Have the ingredients
I bought the angostura bitters from the liquor store on the way home. Didn't have sugar cubes or club soda so I used regular sugar and tonic instead. I used a knife to cut rind from the orange and they were more like chunks. It tasted like a cocktail but not a great one. The chunks of orange looked stupid.
Lesson two: Have the right ingredients
I still hadn't purchased sugar cubes or soda so the cocktail still didn't taste quite right (couldn't taste the tonic but that was because I'd overdone it with the angostura bitters) but this time I used a peeler to take slivers of peel off the orange and they were legitimate swirls this time which added a look of refinement and a waft of orange juiciness to the drink that still tasted like tonic.
Lesson three: You taste with your eyes so get the garnishes right.
At this a stage, I've got the look of the drink down pat. This one is gorgeous. When I wetted down the sugar (still just sugar, not a cube I'm afraid) I turned the glass to coat the wall perfectly if I do say so myself. I even twisted the orange peel to make it curl right (it kind of worked...) But alas. I added far too much whisky and I'll be drunk if I have the whole thing.
Lesson four: Learn the proportions.
I had all the ingredients but the drink ended up being watery and insipid. Not enough angostura bitters, too much soda.
Lesson five: It takes time to get those proportions right.
I made my old fashioned this evening, adjusting against the too-much soda I added yesterday, and the proportions felt righ, however, when I added the too-small ice cubes they melted fast and again my drink was watery. The piece needs to be larger so it melts slower - that isn't just for aesthetics.
Lesson six: Use the right ice.
It was good. Slightly viscous, bitter, spiced and sweet in equal parts with a large, ice cube. I'm getting there but I don't yet know of I could repeat the process that led me to pretty-good. But I've still had better ones at bars and made by friends... Again it's all about working on those proportions.
At this stage I have figured out that I like there to be more angostura bitters than is called for in the recipe. I've made the cocktail so many times now I could do it in my sleep, but still, there's room for improvement in the detail: a drop more angostura or peeling the orange right over the glass make big flavour differences...
Lesson seven: The details really, really count when the final product is less than 100ml.
Tiny findings like, the smokiness of the whiskey is brought out by the orange vapour when you peel it over the glass and the stirring once the ice is in. It's a fine art and bartenders are bloody artists to do this everyday as well as they do. They make it look so easy!
I've got it down to the point where I can make an old fashioned as easily as I can pour a wine. I've even started to go off assignment with variations like the chocolate old dashioned and the rosewater old fashioned or using scotche instead of bourbon. I can see how getting to know every cocktail this intimately would lead to a bit of invention!
It's funny that cocktails are easier to make than cooking the simplest of pasta dishes or baking potatoes, yet there's a perception that it's a bit difficult. After having done it over and over and over (to what would be ad nauseum if it wasn't so nice to do), I can confirm that it's just lack of practice that makes it seem hard. Now, I find the ritual of it as easy, calming and automatic as putting on a record or (if you're this sort of person) ironing a shirt to perfection.
Now that I know how easy it is to learn to make your favourite cocktail, I encourage you to have a go at your favourite. It just takes a few ingredients and a bit of practice (you probably don't need 20 days) and you have a treat on hand for any evening. To be honest I can't believe how easy it is!