1. The Grandaddy: Know Your Old FashionedWHAT IT IS: The granddaddy of all cocktails, the Old Fashioned has a multitude of variants, twists and tweaks, and a sometimes-bewildering difference in style. There are those who will claim that this drink contains soda, or brandy, or even (god help us all) a splash of lemon-lime soda. These people are dangerously insane and you should smile at them, avoid eye contact and not engage them in their delusions.
At its core, the Old Fashioned is truly about upholding and framing the flavor of whiskey, and so a light touch is best. Originally designed to offset the grass-and-pepper flavor of rye whiskey, many bourbons can tip this cocktail into a cloying sweetness, so stick with a Rye, or a Bourbon that contains a nice bit of Rye heat in the mash bill.
HOW TO MAKE IT: In a sturdy rocks or Old Fashioned glass, place a single sugar cube, and dot with an Old Fashioned style bitter. Personally, I’m fond of Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged Old Fashioned bitters, made in upstate New York. They add a nice touch of cinnamon heat, without overpowering the drink. Muddle the sugar cube with a cherry, applying nice, even pressure. If you have a whiskey or maraschino liqueur-soaked cherry, great, but the old standby bottled cherries are fine.
Next, add ice. This is the part where the cocktail nerds get really obsessive, and in some of the more over-the-top cocktail spots, bar-backs spend considerable amounts of time sawing ice blocks, grinding cubes and all matter of arcane ritualistic flim-flam. If you have some of those big ice molds, or spheres, go for it, but regular ice will still make your whiskey cold.
Add whiskey. Rye if you have it. And don’t skimp on the pour.
From a fresh orange, cut a thin slice of peel. Rub this around the rim of the glass to release the aromatic oils, and drop the peel into the glass. Your grandfather would tell you to muddle a fat, pulpy slice of orange with your cherry, sugar and bitters. And your grandfather was a nice enough guy, but just like rock music and your career choices, he was wrong about this. Peel only. I promise.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: The Old Fashioned shows how a few simple ingredients can uphold a base spirit, and frame aspects of it without burying it under sugar or citrus. With a good Old Fashioned under your belt, you can start stretching your repertoire. Try different bitters and different whiskeys, or spring for the fancy ice-whatsit. Experiment with moonshine, or mescal, understanding that the Old Fashioned is a basic template of what any good cocktail should do.