The year is 1895. In a Bordeaux village, brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet begin commercial production of a Sauternes-based elixir known as Kina Lillet. A bittersweet concoction steeped with cinchona and citrus, Lillet quickly becomes popular enough to spawn imitators, leading to an advertising campaign that encourages consumers to “avoid knock-offs.” The aperitif was (and is) often served with a citrus twist, sometimes along with ice and/or sparkling water.
The same year, across the Atlantic, a gentleman by the name of George Kappeler publishes a book called Modern American Drinks, and for the first time in print describes an old-fashioned cocktail:
“Dissolve a small lump of sugar with a little water in a whiskey-glass; add two dashes Angostura bitters, a small piece ice, a piece lemon-peel, one jigger whiskey. Mix with small bar-spoon and serve…”
Fast-forward to 2007: Cocktail purists cry out against the modern practice of befouling an otherwise respectable Old Fashioned with a shot of soda water. Some highly orthodox practitioners even go so far as to ban the presence of muddled orange, advocating a return to the absolute original. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a cocktail geek declare the Old Fashioned their litmus test of a bartender’s skill, their canary in a cocktail coal-mine. Even the merest splash of fizz is enough to send them running out the door, or at least huddling behind the safety of the beer list.
I’m with these libational Luddites, at least most of the way. But I find a touch — not a hearty glug — of soda a pleasant lightening agent in an Old Fashioned. Omitting the orange seems a tad austere for my palate; even the otherwise old-school DrinkBoy admits that the citrus adds “some useful and interesting flavors”. Rye is my whiskey preference here, but I will not deny a well-made bourbon variation, or even scotch in a pinch. In the realm of cocktail snobbery, I’m not quite Orthodox. I’m also a fan of tinkering with tradition, of using the classics as a springboard for modern variations.
So imagine my amusement with this entry on the drinks list at Downtown, a popular pre-theater stop across the bay in Berkeley:
Fashionably Lillet: Sugar cube, a slice of orange, brandied cherry & a dash of bitters muddled together with Lillet, served tall and cool with soda.
Hey there, that’s a clever hybrid of the continental Lillet & Soda and the all-american Old Fashioned. I’ve got no way of knowing if the bartender was poking good-natured fun at the soda-scoffing set, but the name alone tells us she’s got a sense of humor.
Amused at the idea, I order one up. Alas, the pint-glass concoction I’m served falls a bit short of the mark. Lillet’s a fairly mellow aperitif, after all, and even with plenty of ice, 16 ounces of headroom means the drink ends up tasting like lightly flavored soda water. It’s also unwieldy, so much so that the straw isn’t just a clever summery touch, but a necessity. And then there’s all that muddled fruit in the glass, which gums up the straw.
Back at home, we fiddle with the ingredients and try to come up with a solution. We futz with proportions, with glassware, with preparation methods, and with ratios, all without success. We set the recipe aside, and go about our summer.
This month’s Mixology Monday theme — Fizz, hosted by Gabriel at cocktailnerd — seemed like a good excuse to take another pass. While reading up on Old Fashioned history, a line in Robert Hess’s highly opinionated recipe post catches my eye:
“…the maraschino cherry doesn’t really add anything at this [muddling] stage besides a mangled carcass and a little bit of extra sugar…”
Hmm. He’s onto something there. The next time through, I leave out the cherry, saving it for garnish. The resulting drink is better, but still fairly weak. Adding more Lillet — the natural route to a stronger cocktail — makes the drink one-dimensional; the aperitif’s mildness, in this case, is no asset.
Suddenly, the solution becomes obvious: It’s a riff on an Old Fashioned, after all — why not a splash of rye? (Bourbon could work, but I’m trying to keep the sweetness in check.) It may have taken all summer, but I’m happy with the final mix: A light, summery cooler with a nod to both sides of The Pond.
- adapted from Downtown
1 cube natural sugar
1 orange slice, halved (divided use)
3 dashes aromatic bitters
1/2 oz rye or bourbon
2-1/2 oz Lillet blanc
3 oz soda water
brandied cherries, for garnish
Fill a highball glass with ice, arranging half of the orange slice among the cubes; set aside. In a mixing glass, muddle the sugar, half of the orange slice, and bitters together. Add the rye and the Lillet, and top with ice. Stir until well chilled, then strain into the prepared highball. Top with soda, and garnish with brandied cherries.