THE DEAN OF COCKTAILS
Let me begin with ceremony:
- Water, a splash;
- Bitters, to match;
- Sugar, such that you would fit in the hollow of a palm bent ninety degrees from the fingers;
- Bourbon, two fingers’ worth, or enough to kindle the wood that waits behind the plate of bone which protects your chest;
- Enough ice to make mountains in your glass;
- One cherry, Maraschino, with absolutely no accompanying syrup;
- Two half moons from an orange;
- Absolutely no soda water. We will have no ablutions.
And something to receive them: a cup not much higher than your hand is wide, and with a very heavy bottom, at least one half inch of glass. An anchor.
Though I am at heart a scientist I have no tolerance for exact measurements in food or drink. Variance and approximation are the core of the culinary arts. If you are after science you want biology, not food. Epicureans, not empiricists, are who we want for company at our tables. Put your eminent observations and implacable rationality up. Put them up. I give you leave.
Cover the bottom of your glass with sugar. Standard processed granules will do fine here, the kind that come in shoddy five pound bags. Raw brown sugar will give the drink a darker color, as well as molasses overtones. Though this sounds homely it deprives the bourbon of the last word, which is impolite, given our standards for honored guests.
Add a small dash of water, which under no circumstances should overmatch the sugar. You want simple syrup, which is a democratic creature based on equal proportions. Your sugar will not all vanish in this water. For real syrup you would need heat. Simple syrup is a slight supersaturate.
Bitters. Their small air of British colonialism makes the drink stately as an Oxford don. Be humble and match only the water in quantity, if you must match at all.
Next consign a half moon of orange. In nomine.
Muddle with a wooden implement. A spoon handle. Here you may assert that you are a good liberal: grind the colonial representative onto the harsh shoals of sugar. Avoid the orange pith. You are righteous and do not seek to generate bitterness.
Now the ice, clear only at the edges and translucent white at its core. Even water can be made to offer a token resistance to empiricists. Place it in your glass in a willing attitude. It must, after all, prove a stern parent to the remainder of your ingredients, what with its chill.
Two fingers of good bourbon, measured at the knuckles. This is not a time to skimp. Alcohol is only beastly in beasts. You must be the first to take it as sentence. It is excellent -- but O, ‘tis tyrannous, after all, to use it like a giant. You are not a giant. Measure your glass. It matches your palm, after all. This is reassuring. I told you it was an anchor. Your glass will not let you forget yourself.
Then, the peripheral players: one cherry and the second orange half moon. Let the drink take them in. Stir briefly with your muddling stick and retire. Here you may consume without guilt. You may proceed from the brief sweetness into a fire that is welcoming rather than attritive. If the proceedings lose some of their savor, give the glass a good swish. A simple circling of the wrist will do. You did remember to leave some sugar grain at the bottom, yes? Here is why: a small savor of glucose is now yours with each swish.
Drinking the Old Fashioned is a process, a journey through layers. You should almost have Virgil for accompaniment. The fruit at the top bleeds out its sugars, giving a small patina of childhood taste to the proceedings, which would otherwise be far too stately. Cherry and orange vie for the front of your tongue, each rushing for your attention, but able to hold it only briefly. Let them pass like small, private ships. Then swish.
Soon the bourbon announces itself, not with the youthful bluster of the fruit, but with a wizened aplomb, as if it has been watching the pageant thus far entirely for its own amusement, never noticing that it, too, is one of the players. The bourbon is almost shy, embarrassed at your notice, preferring its quiet corner to any forced society. It will nonetheless be drawn out. The shy party guest, but the one you secretly hoped would come, even if he never dances, never chats, and rarely lets you take his overcoat.
Swish. Another small kindness. The last. It has been a good evening.