What’s better than a Whiskey Cocktail? A Fancy Whiskey Cocktail. And better than that? Why, the Improved Whiskey Cocktail, of course. It’s an Old Fashioned but slightly better.
Back in the good old days, a cocktail was a specific type of drink rather than a generic term for an iced mixed drink. The Cocktail Book from 1900 lists pages of drinks called ‘cocktails’ that are variations on the spirit (or wine) plus bitters, sugar and ice theme. But you can also see new drinks creeping in involving vermouth like the Manhattan and early versions of the Martini. Therefore, in the book, an old timey Whiskey Cocktail is called a Whiskey Cocktail – Old-Fashioned to differentiate it. There’s also something called a ‘Fancy’ version made with maraschino liqueur as a sweetener. So fancy!
The Old Fashioned may have been old fashioned but doesn’t mean that it stopped evolving in 1845. It’s an endlessly versatile drink, which is why bartenders love coming up with new versions of it. Jerry Thomas, of the Eldorado Hotel in San Francisco, is usually credited with the invention of the Fancy Old Fashioned. Though more likely it was something that was around at the time and he was the first person to write it down in his Bartenders Guide: How to Mix all Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks (1887). There’s that word again, fancy.
Adding maraschino liqueur to a drink that was often garnished with a bittersweet cherry is not such a leap. It’s just a twist on a classic. But Thomas’s next step was more extreme: to turn a ‘Fancy’ into an ‘Improved’, he added absinthe taking the Old Fashioned dangerously into Sazerac territory. For the many who loathe aniseed this is not so much improved as ruined.
Even as an aniseed lover, I will concede that a little goes a long way, so rather than add a teaspoon as with most recipes, you can add a few drops as a wash to the glass and shake it out before adding the rest of the ingredients. I’m using Ricard instead of absinthe as it’s what I’ve got in the house. It provides just a background note of aniseed. If you’re using proper absinthe which is drier instead of pastis then you might want to add more sugar. Then it’s a question of which whiskey to use. Well, it’s got to be American. Thomas would probably have used a rye but I’ve chosen a classic all-rounder bourbon, Woodford Reserve. It’s a really complex, well-balanced drop made, unusually for Kentucky, in a pot still. I’m serving it on the rocks but you could stir it over ice and serve it straight up. Oh and don’t forget the bitters. I’m using a mixture of Angostura and just a drop of orange which really lifts the whole thing.
Right, let’s improve a whiskey cocktail!
Add a teaspoon of pastis to an Old Fashioned glass, swirl it around and then shake it out. Add lots of ice cubes, all the other ingredients and give it a good stir. Express a piece of orange over the top and then serve.