The Old Fashioned takes us right back to the beginning of the history of
cocktails. In 1806 a reader wrote to the editor of The Balance and Columbian Repository, a newspaper published in Hudson, New York from 1801-1807, asking about the meaning of a new word: “cocktail.” The editor replied, “Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” There is the old-fashioned, pure and simple.
(In this electioneering year, it’s instructive to stay with the editor as he continues: “[The cocktail] is… supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head….”)
Master bartender Dale DeGroff, in his classic cocktail book, The Craft of the Cocktail, calls the cocktail the quintessentially American beverage. “Indeed, it could even be argued that the cocktail is a metaphor for the American people: It is a composite beverage, and we are a composite people.”
DeGroff describes the first colonists in the Americas as “voracious experimenters,” fermenting beverages from pumpkins and turnips to rhubarb, walnuts and elderberries in search of an alcoholic kick. This same voracious experimentation led to the accidental discovery of rum.
On his first journey to the New World Christopher Columbus stopped off at Gomera in the Canary Islands, fell in love with its governess Beatriz de Bobadilla y Ossorio, and stayed for a month. When he left, the governess gave him some sugar cane cuttings, and sometime after he landed in the Bahamian archipelago in 1492, Columbus caused those cuttings to be planted. Sugar cane had come to the New World.
The first sugar harvest was on the island of Hispaniola in 1501; the Portuguese took sugarcane to Brazil and by 1550 there were more than 3,000 small sugar mills in the Caribbean and South America.
One of the by-products of the sugar production process is molasses, and molasses, fermented and distilled, produces rum. (Rum is also distilled from the juice extracted from pressed sugarcane, but in the beginning it was pretty much molasses.)
By the end of the 1600s, says DeGroff, rum production had overtaken sugar production by so much that the British enacted laws requiring that a certain proportion of sugarcane in its colonies be used to make sugar. Rum had become the base spirit of choice for colonial beverages.
Britain gradually squeezed the Thirteen Colonies out of the rum trade by a series of acts and then by blockading its supply of molasses from the Caribbean, first during the Revolutionary War (DeGroff says the real cause of the revolution was rum, not tea) and then during then the War of 1812.
As waves of new immigrants came to America they brought traditions like whisky and vodka with them, but really, rum came first.
Recently a friend of mine received for his birthday a bottle of El Dorado Special Reserve 15 Year Old Rum, produced by Demerara Distillers Ltd. of Guyana. Demerara was the site of some of the original sugar mills in the New World.
We decided to celebrate this premium New World spirit with a version of the first American cocktail. To accompany, my friend played a phonograph of a favourite American band on an old-fashioned turntable, and we ate salted cashews, a nut native to the New World, but that is another story.
Rum Old Fashioned
2 oz. El Dorado Special Reserve 15 Year Old Rum
1 tsp. cane syrup
1 good dash Angostura bitters
Stir ingredients over a handful of ice cubes for 45 seconds. You want to end up with about 30 per cent water. Strain into a rocks glass over one large ice cube. Squeeze orange zest over top, twist, and drop into the glass.
1 cup (250 mL) organic cane sugar
½ cup (125 mL) water
Combine in a small pot and set over medium low heat. Stir constantly just until sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and decant into a clean, dry jar. When cool, cover and store in the refrigerator.
Makes about 1 cup (250 mL).
Notes on Syrup
When making sugar syrup for cocktails, don’t let the syrup come to a boil. Just gently heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves. The syrup will be thicker, which makes for a nicer mouth-feel. Make small batches — you will only use a bit of syrup at a time. Finally, when sugar syrups have been stored for a while, crystallization can form in the jar or bottle, but that doesn’t make any difference to the flavour.