Friday, May 24, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Old Tom Old Fashioned

You don’t need me to tell you that the Old Fashioned has made a roaring comeback. You’ve got lifestyle blogs and magazines illustrated with Mad Men stills for that.

You don’t need me to tell you that the simpler the preparation of your Old Fashioned, the better off you are. You’ve got Old Fashioned 101 for that.

I will say this of the “fruit salad” that used to litter this cocktail: I bought a muddler solely for the purpose of making Old Fashioneds, and I never use it anymore. What a waste of money. On an unrelated note, be sure to pick up my new children’s book Morty The Mournful Muddler, the heartwarming tale of a lonely discarded bar tool that finds redemption through bird watching and community service.

What do you need me to tell you about a drink that’s been analyzed to death? Let me check my notes ... one of David A. Embury’s six basic cocktails ... born in Louisville, Kentucky’s Pendennis Club in the 1880s ... toss in an authentic maraschino cherry if you feel like it ... rye’s really your better option, but you knew that ...

Oh, here you go. Have one with gin. Specifically Old Tom gin.

I’ve raved before about the return of this sweeter variety of gin, closer to the pre-Prohibition incarnation of the spirit. Ransom Old Tom is barrel-aged, resulting in a highly distinctive taste that’s a bit like gin, a bit like whiskey, and very much its own. It makes for a satisfying Old Fashioned, lighter than one made with brown liquor.

A rare warm day put me in the mood for one, so I stopped by the Zig Zag Café. I asked stalwart bartender Ben Perri for an Old Tom Old Fashioned, and he stalwartly asked which brand I preferred, Ransom or Hayman’s. I was poised to reply Ransom, but hesitated. Hayman’s, a U.K. product based on an archival recipe, has become a Chez K staple, my go-to for a Tom Collins. But I’d never considered it in an Old Fashioned. It’s closer to London dry gin, and far sweeter. I was torn, and did what I always do when faced with such conundrums: I asked my bartender for his opinion.

Ben said both make excellent, very different Old Fashioneds. His default choice for Old Tom was Hayman’s, because it was a) English, where Old Tom came from, and b) more gin-like in flavor.

I was torn. Ransom seemed a better fit for an Old Fashioned, but it always tasted like Ransom. The prospect of Hayman’s intrigued, but it was already fairly sweet. What’s a smart man to do?

I have no idea. I only know what I would do, and that’s have Ben make both versions so I could subject them to an on-the-spot taste test.

During this preparatory phase, a dark horse came onto the track. Ben pointed out that Dutch genever, the rich juniper liquor that was an original Old Tom contemporary, is available again from Bols – and is also well-suited to the Old Fashioned. What the hell, said I, let’s have one of those, too. I’m nothing if not thorough. Thus, when Rosemarie arrived at the bar to find multiple cocktails, pony glasses and bottles before me, I got to utter the three words that have been a refrain throughout our marriage: “I can explain.” At least she got to participate in the experiment as well.

The result was a three-way photo finish. There were no losers that night, only winners, with me the biggest winner of all. Ben was right about Hayman’s. Its sweetness was no impediment, Ben’s rendition of the drink beautifully balanced. It took the title by a nose over the Bols genever, which held the middle ground between a more classic gin style and the robust iconoclasm of Ransom. I’ve made Old Fashioneds with Hayman’s since, but still find myself craving the idiosyncratic notes present only with Ransom. I’m not worried, though. I’ve got all summer to wrestle with the problem.

Old Tom Old Fashioned

2 oz. Old Tom gin
¼ oz. simple syrup
3 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over ice. Garnish with a nice, thick lemon peel and a cherry for old times’ sake. Don’t let your muddler see what you’re doing. You’ll hurt its feelings.