An Open Letter to the Mad Men-Obsessed, Or How to Make a Damn Old Fashioned

Categories: Cooking!
Dave Lieberman
Lately, I've had to resort to picky douchebaggery when ordering Old Fashioneds in bars, just as when I order a martini. It's all the fault of the writers and producers of Mad Men, who wouldn't know a good Old Fashioned if it got spilled on their nuts.

We're not going to get into the martini thing again--just go read Caroline On Crack's excellent series on classic cocktails--but we are definitely going to talk about the bastardization of the world's original cocktail.

You see, Don Draper is doing to the Old Fashioned what James Bond did to the martini: ruining it. No one ever specifies the recipe, but you can see it; what Don Draper drinks is not an Old Fashioned. What Don Draper drinks is a fucking fruit salad with bitter whiskey sauce.

I've tried it that way more times than I can count with my shoes on and my fly up, and it sucks.

First, there are the cherries. Most bars use ice cream cherries, which are revoltingly sweet, falsely colored and soaked in almond-flavored, high-fructose corn syrup. If I wanted almond-flavored syrup (known as orgeat when it's made from ingredients we can pronounce) in my cocktail, I'd ask for a mai tai.

Even in bars that preserve cherries in bourbon or use the fancy Luxardo cherries, muddling a cherry in the drink gives it this cloying, rich taste that makes it impossible to take more than a few sips. Even throwing a cherry on a pick into the drink leaches that thick syrup into the drink.

Next, there's the orange problem. Most bars use a big, old wedge of orange and muddle the shit out of it, which presents a few problems; it dilutes the drink with orange juice, it releases bitter compounds from the white pith into the drink, and it smacks you in the nose when you tip the glass back.

Finally, there's the whole bitters thing. I had an Old Fashioned in Anaheim, where the staff used Peychaud's (it has to be Angostura; they taste completely different). I had an Old Fashioned in Fullerton where the bartender shook the bitters bottle as though it were on fire and used about four times too much. And then there was the bar in Burbank where the staff forgot to use any bitters at all. Two dashes, folks; three, if you regularly suck on alum à la Warner Brothers cartoons.

No, here is how I wish every bar made an Old Fashioned, which is based on Eric Alperin's (The Varnish) recipe adapted for home bars and with a little less bitters:

1. Muddle one cube (or a scant barspoon) of sugar with two dashes of Angostura bitters, a barspoon of seltzer water, and a long strip of orange zest (no white part). Don't overmuddle; if you split the zest, you muddled too hard. Fish out the zest with the barspoon.

2. Add 2 ounces of whiskey. I love my Old Fashioneds with Rittenhouse 100 rye, which has the alcoholic punch to stand up to the sugar in the drink, but really any rye or bourbon will do.

3. Add ice and stir briefly.

4. Garnish with another twist of orange zest. You can swipe the outside edge of the glass with the outside of the peel, and then drop it in the drink.

That's it. Orange zest, bitters, sugar, seltzer, whiskey and ice. You'll be amazed how strongly the orange flavor comes through, while allowing the whiskey to shine. I agree with Eric and Caroline that this is a drink that requires several sips to become perfect, as the ice melts slowly.

Are you listening, Don Draper wannabes?

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RocketJ topcommenter

Slightly off topic but close enough for me to rant... ordered an Irish Coffee at the tilted kilt, waitress came back and apologized the bartender could not make one because they were out of Baileys, ain't no effing Baileys in a effing Irish Coffee, you would think if you are trying to be a pub you would get the drink right and not muck up the recipe, were able to make once informed how to make a proper Irish coffee, at least it was served in a close approximation of the proper mug...


Nice that you had the good humor to admit to "douchebaggery" when you wrote this.


Crap. Another person dogmatically asserting that their way is the way to make an Old Fashioned. Lissen, I don't blame you for using a sugar cube. I mean, generally... few bartenders of record use sugar cubes. Gaz does, but...that's about it. Why? Because it (again) generally is considered a too-sweet OF when a sugar cube is used. Try some 2:1 simple syrup. Better mouthfeel, better drink. Middle the orange peel? Sheeit. Don't tell Robert Hess y'r a'gonna do that. your house, you can make your drink any way that you like, but don't let it bother you that none of the 100 best bars in America do that. Soda water? Can't hurt. I suppose that's to make a simple syrup, 'eh? Fish something out of a drink!? Oh Lordy. Mix in the ice that y'r going to keep in the glass!? Now in just gett'n pissed. No. If y'r going to teach people, teach them what is right. Here's what's right - it's called 'fresh ice'. Mix with one bit of ice, strain into glass with fresh, also called "dry" ice. You are getting the dilution with the first bunch o' ice, the next bit is for nothing but keeping the drink cold. And. Please. Please. PLEASE do not teach people to run the rim with the orange peel. Just don't. Hint: there's acid in the orange zest that will affect many people's lips. Tell them to just squeeze/'zest' the orange peel. Lordy Lordy Lordy. Please. Stop the madness.

Oh. Let them known that other spirits can be used. Don might not have knob to do such a thing, but...a Mezcal Old Fashioned? Oh, yeah.


If you want to get technical you can't blame the show for the fruit cocktail he drinks. Esquire's drink guide from 1956 has multiple Old-fashoined recipes. The number one recipe states the drink should be made as follows: carefully muddle lump of sugar, dash Angostura bitters, splash of club soda in Old-Fashioned glass. Add 1 ice cube, orange slice, 2 cherries, twist of lemon peel, piece of pineapple, 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of your favorite whiskey. Top with splash of club soda. As a bartender calling that an Old-Fashioned pains me greatly but the show is just keeping up with the era.


Thank you for this.  You are doing the lords work. 


@Jay287 There is a reason behind the madness.

1. Sugar cubes come in different sizes. I use some random brand of "terrones de azúcar" I buy at my local large Mexican market, El Metate. They're not the enormous blocks you get from C&H. Besides, I don't buy it—orange juice is sweet (at least here in California it is) and those cherries are always saccharine. You can use a very scant barspoon of granulated sugar if you like.

2. Yes, soda water. The whole point is to make your own syrup in the glass, which is why OFs are always built in the glass they're going to be served in. The sugar abrades the oil out of the orange zest. There's a little extra effervescence from the soda water (it doesn't all get muddled out), and it's better than adding a splash at the end, which just sits there.

3. In the "Mad Men" type OF, all of the orange gets muddled: the zest, the bitter pith, and the flesh. I fish the zest out with one swipe of the barspoon so that it's not hanging around in the bottom of the glass doing nothing. It has given its all; it is spent.

4. Straining into another glass just means another glass to wash. I'm not talking about stirring for fifteen seconds like a martini or a Manhattan. I'm talking about three or four revolutions with the barspoon to get the juices flowing. Remember that home ice is typically harder than shell ice at a bar, so the dilution is not as bad. (If your bar uses Kold-Draft or something like that, you know what I mean.)

5. If you run the rim with zest, it needs to be an integral part of the drink—and since there is not orange juice in the drink, there needs to be a little added acidity. If your lips are so sensitive that the tiny swipe from the zest will hurt them, it would be best to avoid any acid in cocktails at all, especially a cocktail that already has that zest in it.

6. You are right, many other spirits can be used. I haven't tried a mezcal one at home—don't have any mezcal, pending a trip to Tijuana—but I may try it with sotol, which I do have on hand.

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