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Build Your Own Old-Fashioned

In a few hours, I'll start writing a bit about my trip to and from Michigan this weekend. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I gained a lot of important insights, such as: It is much easier to read and absorb 350 pages of Property while sitting in front of a roaring fire in an old stone fireplace, sipping a well-mixed Manhattan [1], than trying to do the same in Columbia's law library. From this we can conclude that the library would be markedly improved by the addition of large fireplaces, comfy chairs, and a staffed bar. At present it has none of these things.

I also encountered stunning displays of incompetence, mostly from American Airlines, who were kind enough to cancel, delay, or otherwise screw up my flights, mostly due to inadequate staffing. My planes literally spent more time on runways due to mechanical failure than in the air.

But hard as American Airlines tried to win the So Pathetically Incompetent We Can't Believe They've Not Immolated Themselves By Accident Already Award, the winner actually goes to a bartender at the sports bar in Grand Rapids airport. This sterling example of evolution delayed managed to cock up one of the simplest drinks ever devised by man: an Old Fashioned.

Really, there's only whiskey, bitters, sugar, a cocktail cherry... this is not chemistry at its finest. But I should have just ordered a beer when he said, "I don't think we know how to make that." I shouldn't have replied, "Trust me, I'm sure your bartender knows how to make an Old Fashioned."

What did the young man bring me? A strong glass of whiskey mixed with some kind of sweetish soda water (quite possibly Sprite), a lone cocktail cherry languishing at the bottom. No sign of bitters anywhere evident. And three packets of sugar, presumably so I could sweeten to taste.

Ah well. At least my family had something to laugh at before I got on the plane. For those cocktail enthusiasts who are flying the friendlier skies at the holidays, though, may I recommend the bar between gates B18 and B19 at O'Hare Airport? I met up with my brother there on his way back to Phoenix, and the bartender does a surprisingly fine martini.

[1]: Will Baude mentions that the idea of dry vermouth in a Manhattan had never occurred to him. I actually prefer my Manhattans with dry vermouth, having been converted to the cause by the bartender at the American Bar at the Savoy. If you ever have the chance, I recommend it.


From this we can conclude that the library would be markedly improved by the addition of large fireplaces, comfy chairs, and a staffed bar. Best suggestion you've ever made, provided that "the library" can be taken to refer to any library, anywhere in the world. Is this a potential vote-winner? "I promise to raise tax by 1% and use it to make libraries pleasant places to be."
As an ex-bartender, I can vouch for the fact that most young practitioners of the art (at least in L.A.) don't know how to make an Old Fashioned. I learned because I worked at a restaurant and bar which attracted an older set or, in the least, children of the older set who learned about cocktails from their parents. I made a few Old Fashioneds, but not too many. However, from conversations I had with fellow bartenders who worked at younger bars and places on Sunset Strip, their cocktail vocabulary was limited to shots and barbarities such as Adios Motherf***ers. It all depended on geography. Just one guess here, but an airport in Grand Rapids probably doesn't get too many requests for anything beyond beer. Have you ever had a Sidecar? I'm going to guess youhave since you know what an Old Fashioned is in the first place but, if you haven't, it's a nice twist on the classic.
I second Adam on this one: good luck finding a bartender anywhere who knows how to make an Old Fashioned. Or a Sidecar. Or Pink Gin. Or anything that requires any sort of delicate balance between good rum and a slice of lime. Or a bar that can even make a proper Julep or Mojito - mint syrup is emphatically not the same as muddled mint!
There's a couple of places here you can get a tolerable mint julep. But if I'm ever in Ann Arbor again, I'm knocking on Adam's door and demanding a Sidecar...
My wife (from Wisconsin) introduced me to the Brandy old-fashioned. That's really good. I've never had a whiskey one.
Sweet triple post. That calls for a drink! Do you have a user registration system now?
Nope. It's just that you had the bad luck to post whilst I was doing some minor site repairs. I'll clean it up quickly. Sorry about that.
If you're ever in London, they do a fine Old Fashioned at Red in Soho (www.redsoho.com). As I type I'm sipping at my first ever effort at mixing one... Conclusions: it's easy to get an approximation but a good example of the real thing will take practice. Damn. Going to have to drink a few more of these things.

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