Home / The Speakeasy: The Old-Fashioned – Don Draper’s Signature Cocktail

The Speakeasy: The Old-Fashioned – Don Draper’s Signature Cocktail

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Make it another Old-Fashioned, please!

So said Cole Porter and now Don Draper.

In honor of Mad Men's fantastic season finale, I went on a week-long search for Don Draper's cocktail of choice — the Old-Fashioned. In series creator Matthew Wiener's world, the Old-Fashioned is a heavy metaphor. Don Draper is struggling to stay in step with a rapidly changing decade — the JFK assassination, the Civil Rights and women's movements, and the age of television. Don, deceivingly cool in his Brooks Brothers suit, is antiquated. Would he survive the chaos of the sixties? Will he trade in his Old-Fashioned for a vodka martini? Will he continue to drink cocktails at 9:30 a.m.? Stay tuned for season four.

In the meantime, mad spirits await. I started my Goldilocks (half-head highlights) tour at the Billy Martin Tavern in the Georgetown area of Washington D.C. This Billy Martin is no relation to the famously tempestuous Billy Martin of the NY Yankees, but he is equally legendary in the neighborhood.

Martin's Tavern is a landmark in an area that is saturated with landmarks — the famous Exorcist stairs, for example.

Photo by Colleen Kaiser/washingtonpost.com

Martin's Tavern was offering a 75th anniversary edition of the Old-Fashioned. I'm not sure what exactly constituted the special edition of the cocktail. The waiter wasn't any help either. He didn't know it was on the specials list.

The cocktail arrived without incident and without explanation. Perfectly serviceable, muddled orange and cherry, but maybe not worth waiting 75 years for.

There are many recipes for an old-fashioned. A very old drink, it may have been very first so-called cocktail – a drink at the rooster's crow.

The Old-Fashioned:

2 oz. of bourbon
2 dashes of bitters
1 splash of water
1 tsp of superfine sugar
1 maraschino cherry
1 orange wedge

In the Old-Fashioned's history, there has been plenty of time for changes along the way, but what should happen is this: the sugar and water dissolve in the bottom of a large rocks glass. Add the bitters. Add the cherry and orange wedge. Muddle with a muddler. Yes, a muddler! If you're going to keep reading these tracts, you'll need a muddler — just kidding, the round of a spoon works well too. Fill glass with ice. Add the bourbon and stir.

The drink at Martin's may have been ordinary, but the history at Martin's is extraordinary — every sitting president since Harry Truman has visited the restaurant. All anxiously await President Obama.

According to the menu, Booth Three is where JFK proposed to Jackie. We could only glance at the iconic seat  – the tavern was so crowded. It was Sunday brunch, and Sunday brunch in D.C. is the equivalent to 1:30 a.m. in New York City's meatpacking district.

Some Old-Fashioned recipes call for less bourbon and more water. Beware the "modern Old-Fashioned" which calls for one ounce of bourbon, and the glass filled with club soda. A cautionary tale I encountered was an Old-Fashioned that was essentially a very tall Manhattan. The drink was strained onto another glass full of ice — a wine glass — with no garnish and a cherry on the bottom.

Another Old-Fashioned, that same night, had an alarming color — perhaps an abundance of cherry juice. There is a variation of the drink that calls for maraschino juice as a substitute for water in the muddling. Muddling. I like saying that word.

My companion was suspicious that the drink was so red that there might be grenadine in it. The bartender was shocked, shocked at the suggestion.

Final stop was X20, the latest restaurant from Peter X. Kelly, Iron Chef winner. A gorgeous spot in Yonkers, New York on the Hudson River, overlooking the Palisades, X2O is a five star restaurant with a five star bar. I picked the Tuthilltown Baby Bourbon for my Old-Fashioned. It was served straight up which concerned me at first, but all was forgiven. It was the best of the week.

Beginning and ending the week with a presidential theme, I asked Chris, the bartender at X2O, about a recent visit to the restaurant by the Clintons. What did the president drink? Inquiring minds must know. It turns out that the Clintons had red wine. I was surprised, thinking that Bill might be a cocktail guy, or at the very least, a beer guy. Mrs. Clinton, said Chris, ordered the wine.

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • Dan

    I love the character of Don Draper, love the show too, but let’s face it Don is a deeply troubled individual who makes some bad choices. Any drink that requires sugar and fruit, well that’s a girl drink.

  • Leroy

    The Old Fashioned was old fashioned even when I was young in the 1950s. It was the favored drink of my buddies father, so of course we had to try it when we sneaked drinks. He made it with “Old Cabin Still” which we immediately yclept “Old Stab and Kill”.

    Haven’t had one since 1957. Dry Martinis became the fashion.

  • paul

    i too have sadly experienced the same variations you cited. one of the tackiest things i routinely see is the bartender pouring a pack of “sugar in the raw” into the bottom of the glass and trying to muddle it. it sounds like gravel being muddled. here’s how i make ’em in an “old fashioned” glass:

    1 tsp brown sugar (that isn’t “sugar in the raw”),
    1 tsp cherry juice (not too much or the drink will look red),
    1 orange slice,
    1 cherry,
    3 dashes bitters,
    fill glass 3/4 w/ice,
    fill w/bourbon (makers mark is a personal favorite).
    lightly stir.
    garnish w/orange slice, cherry, lemon twist and mint leaf.
    smooth and strong like train.

  • nellad20

    Mad Men is by far the best drama on television for the last several years. That being said, the Old Fashioned is a Wisconsin staple. Mainly brandy based, whiskey can and is an acceptable alternative. I cannot comment on the ‘classiness’ or timelessness of other cocktails, but the old fashioned is one of the best because of its many variations and smoothness.

  • We can call it a pestle then! Well, that’s not a great word either, is it.

  • my mother used to love muddled old fashioneds. i used to cringe when she’d order them…something about the word muddled just grated on me. love the new masthead btw!