A young woman smirks as I try to shove an inordinate number of yellow jackets and coats into an overhead compartment. She laughs at me, in a kind way, and, while offering to help, jokes about not being able to tell what my favourite colour is. I blush and imagine that this amount of warm clothing may look strange in the sweltering Dubai heat, but the -4°C weather in Hamburg was no laughing matter at all.
Her name is Emma, and, as well as making playful jokes and helping hapless, overcoated humans, she presided over the in-flight bar counter in Emirates business class. It was thanks to her dab hand at muddling a “jigger” of bourbon, some sugar syrup, and two dashes of bitters — and the all-important garnishing of a cherry and orange peel — that I became obsessed with Old Fashioneds.
It was not a long flight, but it was long enough for three drinks to seal my fate. On arriving home, I thought about the wonderfully strong, soothing, sipping power of one of the oldest cocktails in the world — if not the oldest, if some of the tales are to be believed. It was in 1806 that the term “cocktail“ was first used, and, when defining the word, The Balance and Columbian Repository editor wrote that it was “a potent concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar” — a bittered sling. But it would only be in 1881 that the ol’ girl got the name we know her by today, at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky. So, very old fashioned indeed.
But, at this stage, the closest I was going to get to Kentucky was a colonel burger, and I took it upon myself to find the best Old Fashioned in Joburg. By taste testing, of course. Luckily for me, the cocktail has become somewhat trendy of late, along with its younger Italian cousin, the Negroni. The trend has prompted Angostura Bitters to release an orange-flavoured bitters to imbue those much-needed subtle, citrus tones. And yet, who knew that swirling three ingredients in a glass could produce such varied results? I have encountered practically plain bourbon with a cherry in it to sheer perfection in a glass that I imagine comes packaged with a chorus of drunken singing angels. Conversely, I have even seen a peanut butter Old Fashioned on a menu, and would like to pretend that it does not exist.
However, bar-tending prowess aside, I have found that the key to finding one’s favourite Old Fashioned lies in the base alcohol element. Sure, bourbon is seen as the historical standard, but it’s quite fashionable on these Jozi streets to opt for gin’s main attention rival, rum. Not that there aren’t gin Old Fashioneds too — which, personally, taste like “no thank you”.
But if I were to give some tips so you may start your own Old Fashioned journey, I would say start with rum: it’s lighter and slightly fruitier, depending on who pours it. When it comes to bourbon, don’t let those fancy bars fool you: Wild Turkey is all you need, as it’s perfect for the mixing of flavours. I don’t know why anyone would want to mess with a good whisky, but go ahead if that’s your thing. But if you want to have a rare and wonderful experience? Go for rye. It has all the depth of bourbon, but seduces you with its fragrant, spicy aftertaste.
Follow McKeown’s ongoing Old Fashioned quest on her Instagram: @SylviaMck