Drink of the Week: The Improved Cocktail (Take 2)

Image ALT text goes here.So, as we learned last week, once upon a time, the term “cocktail” was not today’s generic term for any mixed alcoholic beverage but instead was a drink that called for a base spirit, bitters, sugar/simple syrup and maybe a bit of additional water and a fruit garnish of some sort. Thus, the original cocktail — which was not, obviously, called the Old Fashioned yet, as it was actually still kind of a newfangled thing — begat the Improved Cocktail, which adds a small amount of a liqueur to the mix and which, unlike the Old Fashioned today, is primarily served up (i.e. with the ice strained out).

While punches and numerous other mixed drinks definitely predated this Gilded Age classic, today’s drink is definitely something of an ur-cocktail in that it presumably helped open the door for the cornucopia of strong boozy beverages that are now the backbone of pretty much any home or professional bartender’s repertoire.

Last week’s Improved Cocktail recipe, however, was built around genever (the ur-gin from the Netherlands), and while that recipe can work very nicely with base spirits that are now more common, I’m not sure it’s the absolute best way to go when you’re dealing with whiskey or brandy. This week’s recipe is purloined/adapted from several different online sources which, in turn, were borrowed from the original recipe from ur-bartender Jerry Thomas. Compared to my genever recipe, it adds literally just a dash of one more ingredient and cuts the liqueur proportion in half, which may work better with base spirits that are somewhat more sweet.

The Improved Cocktail (Take 2)

2 ounces rye or brandy (bourbon is also fine, though not traditional, I gather)
1 teaspoon simple syrup or 1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon maraschino liqueur (other liqueurs may be acceptable substitutes)
1 dash absinthe (optional, perhaps)
1 dash aromatic bitters (Angostura or similar)
1 lemon twist (highly desirable garnish)

Combine the liquid ingredients in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Stir or shake vigorously — this time I lean strongly towards stirring — and strain into a well chilled cocktail glass. Add the lemon twist. Sip and contemplate all the things in our world that could bear some improving, even if it’s actually kind of impossible to improve upon an Old Fashioned in the opinion of this boozer.


Though I often lean towards shaking drinks, even when they don’t contain juices and conventional cocktailian wisdom says to stir, I was surprised to find that this version of the Improved Cocktail appears to taste more deliciously sweet and well-balanced when stirred and not shaken. I imagine the additional ice and water just dilutes the drink more than is ideal.

This Improved Cocktail, however, works equally well with brandy and whiskey, but perhaps because I prefer this one stirred, I would also advise you to stay from products that are closer to 80 proof and perhaps away from 100 proof brands. For this reason, I thought I had better luck with ryes from Dickel, Canadian Club and Crown Royal than my usual default, Rittenhouse Rye. Improved Cocktails with the latter had a bit more alcoholic heat to it than I usually like, even when I was shaking the drink. (Going slightly off-recipe, Evan Williams bourbon and not-rye Canadian Club were slightly sweeter but still very good.)

I also tried Cointreau to see if non-maraschino’s would work for the very small presence of a liqueur. It was fine but maybe the richness of the maraschino is a better option here. I also substituted Herbsaint for my dash of absinthe (I used an eye-dropper so I could properly dash the stuff) on one attempt. It was good. Other strong anise-flavored liqueurs like Pernod might work here, too. It’s just a dash.

Finally, a word about bitters. The original recipe called for Boker’s Bitters, which is a brand that no longer exists. When I started these posts, I assumed that was that. However, I have just recently learned that there are a couple of Boker’s-style bitters out on the market, including one by Fee Brothers. I don’t think it can be easily found in stores, but if you want to go mail-order, that might be an option. Next time for me. Since Boker’s featured cardamon, I did try an Improved Cocktail with cardamon-heavy Peychaud’s. It wasn’t an improvement at all.