First, an admission: I’m a bandwagon old fashioned drinker. A few years ago, I became hooked on the series Mad Men. The show’s protagonist—Don Draper, a smooth-talking, chain-smoking ad man with a mysterious past—swills old fashioneds like water. Fueled by a gigantic lapse in logic, I began mixing Draper’s drink at home for a semiregular nightcap thinking I’d somehow also inherit a bit of his suaveness. What I got was not a lesson in being cool, but rather an education in what makes a good cocktail.
With three ingredients—bourbon or rye, bitters, and sugar—an old fashioned is, technically speaking, a simple drink. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s easy to execute; with so few ingredients, there’s no room to hide. A killer old fashioned is eminently balanced: The whiskey shouldn’t overrun the cocktail; the bitters shouldn’t bite; the sugar shouldn’t overpower.
In fact, it’s precisely this drink’s basic but delicate equilibrium that makes an old fashioned an excellent measure of a bar. It’s an estimation you can start making before you even take a sip. The drink should be served in a lowball glass—often referred to as an old fashioned glass—with ice. If a bartender unceremoniously plops a pint glass in front of you, as happened to a friend at one Denver bar, he’s made a critical error. An orange (or sometimes a lemon) peel garnish should accentuate the bitters. These days, you might come across what’s called a “new old fashioned.” Generally, this means an establishment has taken it upon itself to mess with the classic, muddling in fruit or other ingredients or even adding soda water. This doesn’t (necessarily) make it a bad drink; it just makes it not an old fashioned.
Several years of drinking old fashioneds—and watching seven seasons of Mad Men—hasn’t made me any smoother. One thing it has taught me, however, is that sipping a particular old-school cocktail is not an effective measure of a good man (turns out Don Draper is kind of a dick). Making a good one, on the other hand—well, that’s something else altogether.
By Kasey Cordell
Over time, as the editor of four bar feature stories, the one-woman bartender in a Belfast bar, and a solo diner when I moved to Colorado three months before my fiancé arrived, I’ve spent a lot of hours on my own in bars. The upside, though, is that drinking alone gives you the opportunity to appreciate the little things that get lost in the company of others. Like the things that make a good bar. Not a sports bar or a dance club—I’m talking about the kind of spot you turn to for refuge or for celebration. A bar is a funny thing in that it serves dual purposes for drinkers: Some are there for laughter, others for solitude. But if you botch any of the little things, you’ll ruin the experience for both. So let’s get a few ground rules straight.
No more than 10 cocktails on the menu. Period. More than that and I start feeling like I’m ordering a drink from Yelp.
Soft music. I don’t care if it’s Otis Redding or Iron Maiden; it shouldn’t interrupt my thoughts or my conversation. (OK, if it’s Iron Maiden, I mind a little.)
Bar stools should be padded. (Preferably with foot- and backrests, so I don’t end up slumping over my drink like I do my laptop.) This is particularly true here in the nation’s fittest state, where most drinkers haven’t yet acquired adequate backside cushioning to sustain sitting on hard surfaces for more than one round.
Coat hooks. We’re in the Mile High City, people. Even our summer nights require jackets. There’s simply no excuse not to have a place to put them.
Femur room. The bar should be built out from the vertical plane so that my knees aren’t knocking up against it. By my count, that’s at least 18 inches.
Low lighting. Whether patrons are there to celebrate or commiserate, no one wants their pores on display. This is why Edison bulbs or dimmers are awesome.
Bartenders with savvy. This extends beyond drink-making ability. They need to be men and women with the ability to discern when to chat someone up, when to just shut up and pour another, and when to gently but firmly intervene when one saturated patron intrudes on another’s evening.
Wood-burning stove or fire pit: Because this is Colorado. And it smells good. That’s all.
By Geoff Van Dyke
As a younger man, I had the very self-satisfied impression that drinking alone was a retrograde activity, something for drunks and degenerates and the friendless. It didn’t take long for the cruel circumstances of the real world to disabuse me of my pretensions. After a particularly bad day, I did what any 23-year-old with an affinity for drinks would do: I headed to one of midtown Manhattan’s dive bars and got suitably hammered. By myself.