Old Fashioneds are the new fashion in cocktails
Although we don’t have any official numbers, many, many bartenders in Toronto will tell you the same story — the Old Fashioned is the new vodka-soda.
The Old Fashioned started trending in bars a few years back, probably in response to the fact that cocktail lists have increasingly featured potent and punchy whisky drinks, designed by bartenders craving more flavour than vodka could offer. Customers were won over to the point that — given that the Old Fashioned can now be ordered in practically any bar — they began favouring it as their default “safety” drink over their old standby, the vodka-soda.
“I find a lot of people who come here and just don’t want to bother reading our whole menu will just order an Old Fashioned,” says Geena Lee, bartender at Mulberry Bar, a cocktail joint with a large, ambitious menu in the Christie Pits area. “That’s become the go-to classic drink that everyone will order.”
The drink’s popularity appears to have set off a few light bulbs at different liquor companies, too, judging by the release, this year, of three new ready-to-drink (RTD), bottled versions of this classic whisky cocktail — Founder’s Original Old Fashioned; J.P. Wiser’s Old Fashioned Canadian Whisky Cocktail and the Barchef Project’s Toasted Old Fashioned. Just add ice (or, in some cases, an orange peel) and enjoy.
These three new offerings are a far cry from the standard RTD fare — sweet, juicy summer alco-pops, usually made from rum, vodka or gin. This is as close as we’ve got (in Ontario, at least) to a commercially available spirit-forward, “craft cocktail.” Still, one wonders if a pre-batched commercial version can do justice to the classic, straightforward taste of a traditional Old Fashioned.
And, furthermore, given that the Old Fashioned is dead simple to make at home (the recipe calls for whisky, sugar, Angostura bitters, ice and an orange peel), is this a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?
We set out to get answers to these questions by conducting a taste-test of all three with Lee, who not only makes dozens of them every night for her patrons, but is also a personal fan of the drink. Here are the results, beginning with the winner:
Barchef Project: Toasted Old Fashioned ($24.90; 375 mL; LCBO 546994). Just add ice; makes six cocktails. Produced in co-operation with Still Waters Distillery (Stalk and Barrel whisky). Ranking: #1.
Lee called it a “good winter drink,” on account of it being rich, smooth and tasting like cinnamon, anise and a hint of citrus. She noted that it seemed to be made with a higher-quality base whisky than the others. The only real criticism here might be that it’s much more complex than most Old Fashioned cocktails, with pronounced cinnamon and other flavours, something that might irk traditionalists. Side note: This is, by far, the prettiest bottle of the three — suitable even for small thank-you or hostess gifts.
Founder’s Original Old Fashioned ($14.95, 200 mL; 568667). Add ice and an orange peel; makes three cocktails. Ranking: #2
Pop the cap off this tiny, black stubby bottle and you get a whiff of caramel and vanilla. On the plus side, it wasn’t overly sweet, but Lee felt that it needed more bitters, which give the Old Fashioned cocktail a badly needed lift. It finishes with a strange note reminiscent of a root beer flavour. Side note: Per cocktail, this is the most expensive of the three.
J.P. Wiser’s Old Fashioned ($27.95; 750 mL; 625996). Add ice and an orange peel; makes over 10 cocktails. Ranking: #3
Straight away, Lee characterized it as “completely different” from the first two: “What I get from this is a lot more sugar, you know, when you drink something and you feel that viscosity on the tongue,” said Lee. “People always ask me not to make it sweet, so that’s a problem, and you can also tell that they added an orange essence to it and maybe a little too much.” Side note: Per cocktail, this is the least expensive.
So, Barchef is the one to pick. Especially for those who want to be able to enjoy some of Barchef founder Frankie Solarik’s legendary cocktail creations in the comfort of their own home.
Although there’s a clear winner, Lee still doubts she’s going to buy any of them, since she prefers the DIY version.
“Maybe I’m just spoiled because I know how to make my own Old Fashioned at home, but I like to know what whisky is in it, how much bitters and sugar have been added and even the freshness of the orange peel,” she says. “I would rather just spend that money on a nicer whisky for my home bar.”
Toronto-based Christine Sismondo writes about spirits