Old Fashioned, the Cuban way
Next week is… Old Fashioned Week. At Bar News, it’s always Old Fashioned Week (and Daiquiri Week, and Presidente Week: you get the drift). And although customers tend to associate the Old Fashioned with American whiskeys, we do expect our enlightened readership to know that the Old Fashioned works wonderfully with tequila, mezcal, brandy or even rum. What you may not entirely be aware of is the lengthy and complicated relationship intertwining the Old Fashioned, Cuba and Cuban rum. So here goes, folks.
The Old Fashioned was always an integral part of the repertoire of the cantineros. It appears in many of their early manuals. Interestingly, they were not preparing them with rum, as we might have expected them to, but with rye whiskey. This nod to their American clients excepted, they mixed them in the idiosyncratic Cuban way. Take the Old Fashioned from 1930’s Floridita: Constante and his team made it with a dash of curaçao, they shook it (!) with lime peel and, once strained over fresh ice, garnished it with mint and pineapple (!!). This mighty read like sacrilege to today’s cocktail fundamentalists, but it’s a delicious drink, tailored for the particular demands of the Cuban climate and palate.
Though the inclusion of curaçao might seem strange, it harks back to the Old Fashioned direct predecessor: the Cocktail. Yes, once upon a time, ‘cocktail’ was not an umbrella word for all manners of mixed drinks, it was just one of the many ways a drink could be mixed. It initially meant, as most should know, that one was about to drink a spirit, some sugar, a few drops of bitters and dilution (initially with plain water, later with ice). A simple drink for a simple life. Things changed, and bartenders got fancy. They became mixologists and started adding a lot of things (such as curaçao), serving the Cocktail in fancy glasses with fancy garnishes. Customers who had experienced the good old times were not always impressed. Wary of what he would be served had he ordered ‘a cocktail’, full stop, someone, somewhere, asked for a cocktail mixed “the old-fashioned way”. It happened around 1870 and since then, the name stuck.
Since the cocktail was a category and not a set recipe, it could be made with whatever spirit you had at hand. In New York, it might have meant ‘Holland gin’ (genever). In New Orleans, cognac. In Maryland, rye. But in Boston and New England, rum ruled. As you know, sugarcane doesn’t grow so far north. And yet rum was distilled locally. How come? In the mid 19th century, Cuban rum industry was in its infancy. Its growth had been prevented by the Spanish Crown for protectionist reasons. This left a lot of molasses and traders from Boston were buying it, bringing it back home and selling it to distillers. American rum made with Cuban molasses…
By 1930, the true origins of the Old Fashioned were more or less forgotten, as was rum’s long association with the drink. That’s why Floridita was mixing the stuff with whiskey. For decades, the situation remained the same. And the fact that the Old Fashioned was put back into the spotlight by one Don Draper could have compounded the problem. Thankfully, mixologists rediscovered the roots and the beauty of the drink and broaden our understanding of it. And so rum - including superb aged Cuban rum - came back into the equation.
It makes perfect sense. The Old Fashioned - and the original cocktail before - is basically a ‘seasoned’ spirit. If you ‘just’ add salt and pepper (sugar and bitters) to a spirit, said spirit better be of first rate quality. The idea is to make it shine, to ‘merely’ enhance its flavour profile. Obviously, it won’t come as a surprise that we intend to celebrate next week’s Old Fashioned event with some Havana Club 7. Mix it at home, have it mixed at one of the participating bars or at your own bar. Where doesn’t matter: just mix it. It’s perfectly modern but also allows you to pay tribute to both the history of the cocktail and the island’s rum-making tradition.