I love cocktails, but after an exceptionally tiring day, I don’t always love making them, so it’s nice to have a few options that require minimal effort. While the Old Fashioned, a Martini, and a Manhattan are all great possibilities on such an evening, they all also involve endless questions and debates regarding the right way to make them and innumerable, mostly valid, interpretations. Sometimes, you don’t want a drink with an interesting backstory, much less one offering endless iterations. Sometimes, you just want a sweet something to help you relax and nothing else.
Yes, the Fancy Free Cocktail, which I discovered via Robert Hess’s “The Essential Bartender’s Guide” (you can also see him making one circa 2009 here) is accurately named. You can serve it up (i.e. in a cocktail glass with no ice), but if you’re even lazier, you can build it in a glass and have it on the rocks. Garnishes are entirely optional, in case you can’t bring yourself to grab a fruit peeler or drop a cocktail cherry in. But you’d better like your drink strong and sweet.
The Fancy Free
2 ounces bourbon (rye may be an acceptable substitute)
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur
1 dash Angostura/aromatic bitters
1 dash orange bitters
1 orange twist or cocktail cherry (entirely optional garnishes)
Method 1: Add the liquid ingredients to a mixing glass or cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Stir or shake (this is another one I personally prefer stirred) and strain into our old pal, the well-chilled cocktail glass. Add the garnish if you so choose.
Method 2 (the more fancy free Fancy Free): Add all the ingredients to a rocks/old fashioned glass with plenty of ice. Stir a lot and then add the garnish if you’re in a garnishing mood. Drink nice and slow.
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.
If you Google “improved cocktail,” you will find a number of somewhat differing drinks featuring the most venerable of the base spirits (i.e., whiskey, brandy and gin) or genever, aka “Holland gin.” That’s because, as Michael Dietsch puts it, improved cocktails are more of a template and less of a recipe. Still, I’ve just found that the “improved” model is a pretty amazing template with which to build a recipe.
If the name seems odd to you, it’s important to remember that the actual meaning of the word “cocktail” has changed since the Gilded Age heyday of 19th century bartending. If you walk into a bar today and ask for a cocktail, your confused bartender is likely to say, “Sure, which one of the hundreds of thousands of potentials drinks do you mean?”
If, however, you walked into ur-bartender Jerry Thomas’s bar circa 1876 and asked for a cocktail, you’d find yourself with what we now call an Old Fashioned, a base spirit with sugar or syrup, bitters, maybe a bit of water and a garnish. That was a cocktail. Drinks that didn’t contain bitters were not yet considered cocktails — they were just mixed drinks, and some cocktailians still prefer that terminology. Specifically, if you had ordered last week’s drink at Mr. Thomas’s bar, you would have likely asked for a Holland Gin Cocktail, the once popular term for the spirit thatevolved into the dry English-style gins we all know. When you started adding other forms of booze to it, you were getting a bit fancy. Hence, the Improved Cocktail.
Before there was gin, there was genever — sometimes also called jenever — a concoction that is similar and yet different from the ubiquitous clear booze we now enjoy in our martinis and G&Ts. One obvious geographical difference is that most gins are now made in England or thereabouts, and by law, a liquor can only be marketed as genever if it’s from the Netherlands or Belgium. Only a few brands can be found at all in the United States and, so far, I’ve only seen one on store shelves: Bols Genever. The flavor is definitely different; the manufacturing process is more similar to whiskey, and many detect a more malty flavor.
There’s quite a bit more history on how Dutch genever became English gin, and you can learn some of it in a post I wrote a few years back. However, I never actually owned a bottle of the stuff until this week, when curiosity finally got the better of me and I purchased a bottle of Bols. In Europe, I understand that genever is often served more or less in the same way that whiskey or vodka is traditionally consumed there — more or less straight, possibly with a beer chaser or with a small amount of sugar. It’s use in cocktails is something I’m still learning about, though I know it has been mentioned in some of the oldest cocktail books.
I am, however, under the impression that Old Fashioneds are one popular way to serve genever, and the ur-cocktail seems like a pretty good place to start with one of the ur-liquors. At the same time, genever isn’t whiskey, so you might want to vary the recipe ever so slightly from the basic whiskey Old Fashioned. Or, maybe you don’t.
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