GTPulse: An Ode To The Old-Fashioned, How Three Traverse City Bars Make Theirs

Mixology has been on the rise since the early to mid 2010s. At some point we all put down our Jack and Cokes in favor of craft gimlets, mules, specialty martinis and many more intricate drinks that don’t even scratch the surface of the mixology rabbit hole. I’ve been bartending since I was 19, never anywhere that required I know how to make anything more complicated than a bloody mary or manhattan. I don’t consider myself a mixologist by any means, but my current bar manager is very much a mixologist. My first solo shift on the job, he watched in horror as I muddled an orange slice and a maraschino cherry with a healthy dose of simple syrup and two small shakes of bitters to a whiskey concoction. A splash of sweet vermouth later and in all it’s bastardized glory was the old fashioned I had been making my entire career as a bartender. Kind guidance from my bar manager has since prompted me to only use an orange rind, sugar, bitters and of course, bourbon. There are so many variations and ways to make an old fashioned, and no definitive way on what it means to make a “right” one. I went to a local distillery, craft cocktail bar and dive to try out their old fashioneds and see how much they vary from mine. Twist my arm, why don’t you?

The old fashioned has gone through a few changes during its centuries old history. The cocktail is said to have been created in 1880 by a social club bartender in Kentucky. The recipe traveled with the bartender to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City, and eventually ended up in a published cocktail book, Modern American Drinks, in 1895. That original recipe was a sugar cube in some water, two shakes of bitters, a small piece of ice and a lemon peel.

Nielsen Bell is the head bartender at Mammoth Distilling. Mammoth makes rye, whiskey, bourbon, gin, vodka, rum and a variety of liqueur in their warehouse district location. At a leisurely 3:00 p.m. I wandered into the light filled cocktail lounge and asked if Nielsen would make me a drink.

He put simple syrup, bitters and bourbon in a mixing glass and piled ice on top of it. He stirred the drink with a bar spoon and then strained the drink over new ice.

“It keeps your cocktails from getting too watered down too quickly, and keeps it colder longer,” he explained.

He twisted an orange peel to draw out the citrusy oils and garnished the finished drink with it. 

Some time in the 1980s the old fashioned started to evolve into having muddled fruit and simple syrup instead of sugar cubes and a lemon peel. Nielsen stayed old school with no muddled fruit, but likes the smoother sweetness the simple syrup has over the sugar.

My second stop was at Low Bar, and their old fashioned used sugar. Manager Joe Hess made me the bar’s variation of the drink using Buffalo Trace bourbon, demerara sugar, bitters and a muddled orange.

“We do offer it with a twist, which is super classic. Nothing muddled, more people seem to be getting on board with that and really, it’s a preference thing. We do more with the muddled orange because that seems to be more of a regional thing up here. When people from Wisconsin come over they want a little bit of club soda or ginger ale.”

Using sugar instead of simple syrup adds a bit of grit to an old fashioned that people either love or hate. Demerara is a raw, chunky sugar that is golden brown and maintains some of the sugar cane’s natural flavor.  I always enjoyed the slight grittiness from the sugar I would add to my Kix cereal as a kid, so I enjoy the texture that sugar gives an old fashioned. However, like Joe said all of that boils down to preference.

“Oh, I don’t like the gritty,” Nolen Sleder, owner of Brady’s Bar said to me as she dissolved a packet of sugar in a splash of hot water.

“We do a cherry, we do an orange and actually we do five shakes of bitters. Chris Mode of Mode’s, I watched him make his old fashioned and he always put more bitters in and his is my favorite.”

She muddled the sugar, fruit and bitters before adding bourbon and finished the drink by transferring it to another glass so it would mix.

Each old fashioned was great, but I’m not picky about mine. Muddled fruit, not muddled, simple syrup, or sugar, the options to make the drink your own are endless. Whether you’re a cocktail connoisseur or you just wanna feel like Don Draper, Traverse City has some seriously delicious old fashioned options to check out.

Categories: GTPulse