Make no mistake; this is a good book and a must have for anyone who wants to sit down and read the history of a particular cocktail. And, as would be expected, there are more than a few recipes to play with, all of which sound fine except the bacon fat Old Fashioned and...
Make no mistake; this is a good book and a must have for anyone who wants to sit down and read the history of a particular cocktail. And, as would be expected, there are more than a few recipes to play with, all of which sound fine except the bacon fat Old Fashioned and that thing they drink in Wisconsin, but to each his own.
Simonson traces the history of the drink as best it can be traced, through old bartenders manuals and newspaper clippings filling in here and there with anecdotes of some of the more colorful characters one expects to meet on such a journey. It''s also important, or I think it is, that younger fans of good cocktails be grounded in some history, particularly how Prohibition adversely affected our drinking habits. There isn''t simply a cocktail renaissance occurring, but an American whiskey renaissance producing high quality spirits that are better than anything made before Prohibition. A few years ago,George T. Stagg Bourbon, a 140 proof masterpiece was chosen in a blind tasting by international experts as the finest spirit in the world. Take that brandy lovers.
Cards on the table; I am an Old Fashioned snob, and I suspect Simonson is as well. I''m a bourbon man and my gut tells me he''s a rye man, but that same gut tells me neither one of us would turn down a good quality dram of the other. He seems to have a preference for the earlier recipes and he seems to have a particular disdain for the fruits. He makes several disparaging remarks about "fruit salads" and "the garbage" in the drink. This is where he comes up short, and he didn''t have to because he had the reasoning in his hands, David Embury''s "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks." In fact he commits an unforgivable sin - he chastises Mr. Embury.
David Embury, by his own admission, "trumpeting" would be a better word, notes he is just a "mixer upper" of drinks at home and not associated with the liquor business at all. He wrote a classic: "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks" in 1948 (erroneously reported in one part of the book as 1958, obviously a typo, but later corrected to 1948) a second, updated edition in paperback was released a few years later, but it is not a book of recipes, rather a text on the fundamentals of spirituous liquors and cocktail mixing that are as valid today as the day he wrote them. Of course Mr. Embury, who died in 1958, discusses the Old Fashioned as one of the six basic cocktails. Simonson tells us Mr. Embury contradicts himself by appearing simultaneously to favor a simple drink unadorned with fruit and then tells us how good fruits blend with American whiskeys (they do). But Embury wasn''t writing a book about making original recipes. He was instructing the readers on the basics and then showing them how to build on that. Simonson himself notes that the architecture of the Old Fashioned allows "mixologists" a great deal of latitude to create good tasting drinks within its template. Embury was doing that for all cocktails. The Old Fashioned as an aperitif, he tell us, should have little or no fruit in it at all. As a mid summer''s drink, feel free to load up on oranges, pineapples, and what have you, according to your tastes. His was not a book for purists.
Simonson is on firmer ground when he criticizes Mr. Embury for disdaining the use of water in cocktails. But even here there is a misunderstanding. Embury was loathe to use water as an ingredient in quantities as large as that of the liquor. But he had no problem insisting on cracked ice in an Old Fashioned, which melts quickly and dilutes the drink. At least it does it slowly. And it''s been more than 65 years since the book was published. We know things now about how a drop or two of water can release some flavors in the whiskey that we might otherwise miss. I''m sure if Mr. Embury were alive today, he would change his mind when confronted with the scientific evidence, as he enjoyed the bonanza of fine American whiskeys unavailable to him in his lifetime. Somewhat dated or not, his book is a must have.
But where they really part ways is on the business of muddling the fruit, an awful practice that, should it stop, would prevent some truly dreadful drinks from being served. Embury points out what Simonson misses. Muddling or crushing orange rind releases a very bitter oil that adds nothing to the drink''s flavor no matter how steeped in denial a drinker might be. This not true of a lemon rind (or an orange peel), whose bitter oil, in much smaller quantities, adds to the flavor of the drink. I agree the cherry, muddled or not, doesn''t add much, so don''t make a beautiful drink ugly by mashing up one, but plop it in if you like the look.
What doesn''t seem to bother Simonson at all is the unnecessary process of muddling the sugar cube after soaking it in bitters. Simple syrup, used sparingly (after being made in ratios different than he suggests) can be mixed with the bitters in seconds while muddling the sugar cube to the point where it will actually dissolve is time consuming and produces nothing of superior value to the flavor of the drink.
What does make a difference is the quality of the whiskey. Simonson suggests some very good ones including Elijah Craig 12 year old, a $70 quality bourbon selling for about $35.00. He also mentions the truly excellent Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye (a bourbon drinker''s rye) and Bulleit Rye (they also make a good bourbon). During prohibition some seriously revolting concoctions were dreamed up to hide the flavor of some really awful whiskey (much of it Canadian). The Old Fashioned is not one of those drinks. Using a high quality liquor, even one that might be considered "too good" to drink any other way than neat, produces a real gourmet''s delight.
What doesn''t bother Simonson at all, and that which makes me cringe, is the scotch Old Fashioned. Most scotches and all blended ones have a smoky taste that does not blend well with fruit, muddled or decorative, or much of anything else that has a distinctive flavor. Scotch is scotch and people like it, but there is a reason it is used in highballs and drunk neat or on the rocks. It has limited use in a cocktail. What doesn''t make the list of ingredients for an interesting Old Fashioned, and perhaps should have, is Irish Whiskey. A pot stilled Irish has sufficient body to make a decent cocktail and lacks the smoky taste of scotch. But Simonson impresses when he casually mentions that a good quality Applejack makes a great Old Fashioned. There are very few people today who even know what Applejack is. It is nearly as versatile as American Whiskey and can be used in a variety of cocktails. It is reasonably priced and should be in everyone''s liquor cabinet.
Like I said, I''m an Old Fashioned snob and the ultimate determining factor is the pallet of the person drinking it. It''s your money, drink it as you see fit, but save some of your money for this wonderful little book and amaze your friends with your new found knowledge of the lineage of the true King of the Cocktails. Enjoy one while you read.