Take your time. Measure twice. Finish what you start. How will you have time to do it again if you don’t take time to do it right the first time? Work hard at work, then come home. Loosen your tie and relax. Make a highball or mix a cocktail for
your wife and yourself. Share the end of the day.
We are brothers and we write here of a drink and the man who taught it to us, our father. Teaching us how to make it, he also taught us something of how to live. He was a chemical engineer, and so the formula was important. The drink was the Old Fashioned (or Old Fashion; it doesn’t matter), and this is how he made it.
You will need: half a teaspoon of sugar, four to six drops of Angostura bitters, half a shot of tap water, the juice of about one-third of an orange (hand-squeezed), and one or two store-brand red maraschino cherries with a short teaspoon of cherry juice.
Technique: in a cocktail tumbler heavy enough to feel it when you pick it up, stir the sugar, bitters and water until the sugar crystals dissolve. Stir in the orange and then the cherry and the juice. And don’t forget the bourbon. This is a bourbon-only drink. House or well bourbon is fine, nothing any more pretentious than Old Grand-Dad or Ten High. Save your Basil Hayden’s and Larceny for late-night sipping. Pour in one or two shots, depending on your audience. Last comes the ice (cubes, never crushed) and a brief final stir. Garnish with a half-slice of orange precisely incised at 45 degrees to hang properly on the edge of the glass. Serve on a cocktail napkin, for the glass will sweat.
The ice quickly dilutes the balance of your concoction, so you must attend to enjoying it. Do not set it aside overlong while you mess with the grill. The Old Fashioned is the result of many ingredients, and multiple steps in a particular sequence. It is a drink of anticipation, made one at a time, side by side. Do not even think of a pitcher. It is like live performance: never exactly the same twice in a row but, when well-practiced, approaching perfection. Or pretty close.
The Old Fashioned is a strong drink demanding respect, but it is not just whiskey on the rocks. It is a patient gathering and transformation of ingredients from around the kitchen and liquor cabinet — a multi-sensory process, not a production. Stirring takes time and results in clinking. This is why you may not use bottled simple syrup, which is easier than granular sugar but far too quiet.
The lesson came to us, father-to-son. Perhaps such learning is also imparted mother-to-daughter, but we are, well, old-fashioned, and find it hard to imagine at least with regard to the bar: our mother, who certainly partook of a cocktail, never made one, and we have no sisters. The lesson came to us in a certain chronology. The elder of us was first introduced to the ritual after graduating high school in 1966. Underage yes, but safely at home. Though later a historian, he remembered the sequence, as he was recently reminded, out of order. The younger of us, who was also first introduced to the ritual at his high-school graduation seven years later, and who became a surgeon, remembered it with confident precision.
We both remember two other pegs. In 1995, before a dinner at Keen’s Chop House in New York City to celebrate our father’s 75th birthday, the younger of us arrived at our rooms equipped with all the ingredients for the homemade Old Fashioneds of yore. The Harvard Club supplied only the ice. Then, in 1997, near the end of our father’s life, as he sat in his chair in the living room listening to the clinking of his sons making cocktails, he was heard to say as if in valediction: ‘Hey, that sounds good!’
Remember those signs that used to admonish carefulness at every level crossing: Stop, Look, Listen. Don’t outsource your Old Fashioned to a bar, which is hard to do these days anyway. Learn to do it yourself. Then taste that very first sip. Whether or not it rewards you with a memory like ours, we guarantee that the experience will repay your patience. And then you too will have mastered a
craft worthy of passing on.
Peter Jacobson is a surgeon. Timothy Jacobson writes for The Spectator, the New Criterion and other journals. They are brothers. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2020 US edition.