Classic American drinks are enjoying a comeback – with a dash of artisanal bitters

Blame Don Draper perhaps, as he didn’t mind partaking of one on Mad Men, but the Old Fashioned cocktail is very much front and centre of the classic cocktail revival.

In one form or another, the drink has been around since the mid-1800s, but the 1950s and ’60s were very much the Old Fashioned’s heyday.

Now, as bars across Asia, Australia and New Zealand look to traditional US cocktail recipes with renewed interest, the Old Fashioned has become an antipodean cocktail-menu staple.

To get a feel for a traditional Old Fashioned, we looked to Perth boutique basement bar, Varnish on King.

Photo credit: courtesy Varnish on King
Photo credit: courtesy Varnish on King

“The Old Fashioned is one of our most popular cocktails,” says bar manager Jamie Pastor.  “We make a classic Old Fashioned with bourbon or rye whiskey, depending on the customer’s preference.

“The recipe is simple – 60ml of American whiskey, 5ml of sugar syrup and five dashes of aromatic bitters, stirred over a large block ice, then garnished with orange zest and a bourbon-soaked fresh cherry. We use sugar syrup as it is more consistent than sugar cubes.”

Traditional recipes call for Angostura bitters, the longtime go-to brand, however modern makers of the Old Fashioned increasingly use artisanal aromatic bitters. The past five years have seen a boom of small-batch bitters producers in America, such as Milwaukee’s Bittercube, San Francisco’s Bitter Queens and Brooklyn’s Hella Bitters. Locally, however, the phenomenon has only just taken off, with the Australian Bitters Company launching their product in January and Melbourne’s Mister Bitters launching last May (flavours include Fig & Cinnamon, Honeyed Apricot & Smoked Hickory and Pink Grapefruit & Agave).

As well as artisanal bitters, other ingredients are being substituted or added to give a complexity of flavour to the Old Fashioned. In Sydney’s Hilton Hotel, for example, Zeta Bar offers a Pepper Smoked Old Fashioned, which sees black peppercorn-infused Bulleit Bourbon stirred with orange, bitters and sugar, then finished with a mist of smoke.

To take things even further, some bars are now making their cocktails even better by ageing them in barrels. The technique is pretty self-explanatory – you mix a batch of a certain cocktail then leave it to mature it in a barrel until the cocktail takes on flavours of the wood, oxidises and produces more sugar.

Collingwood cocktail bar The Noble Experiment prides itself on having the largest collection of barrel-aged cocktails in the country.

“Our oldest has been ageing for 16 months,” says head bartender, Linus Schaxmann. “We’ll give it another six months or more, so we can have a 2013, 2014 and 2015 vintage. We’ve tried different types of wood – French oak, American oak – and use different woods for different cocktails. Without being too geeky about it, barrel ageing helps remove rough edges, mingling the different components together to create one flavour. It continues to soften in the bottle, which is amazing.”

A new-school Old Fashioned. Photo credit: courtesy The Noble Experiment
A new-school Old Fashioned. Photo credit: courtesy The Noble Experiment

A great example of a barrel-aged Old Fashioned is The Noble Experiment’s Smoked and Spiced Old Gold, which sees Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel whiskey stirred over ice with hazelnut and spiced vanilla syrup and orange bitters. It’s served in a spiced vanilla tincture-lined glass and crowned with spiced tobacco smoke.

Try it yourself

• ARTISANAL BITTERS

You can buy all of the cocktail bitters mentioned in this story from Only Bitters, a great resource for Aussie and Kiwi bartenders; onlybitters.com

• MELBOURNE

The Noble Experiment: 284 Smith St, Collingwood, Vic. Tel: +61 (0)3 9416 0058; thenobleexperiment.com.au

• PERTH

Varnish on King: Basement level, 75 King St, Perth. Tel: +61 (0)8 9324 2237; varnishonking.com

• SYDNEY

Zeta Bar: Level four, Hilton Hotel, 488 George St, Sydney, NSW. Tel: +61 (0)2 9265 8374; zetabar.com.au

This story originally appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine. It was updated to include Mister Bitters because they are sensational