Power Cocktail History: Martini and Old Fashioned

Classic cocktails to satiate your inner CEO.



 

Certain cocktails are synonymous with power in America. Though fewer people drink with lunch these days, the concept of the “three-martini lunch” is still with us, a holdover from the Mad Men era where businessmen knocked back a few midday. In the current era, this may seem to hinder productivity, but as former President Gerald Ford said in 1978, this kind of lunch is the epitome of American efficiency.

   "Where else can you get an earful, a bellyful and a snootful at the same time?"

   You could spend an entire three-martini lunch debating what should be in a proper martini. The first and most important argument is over the key ingredient — the base spirit. If you want to unnerve a bartender, ask for a martini without first specifying gin or vodka.

   From there, one must choose whether to use vermouth, and then how much. Next up? Whether or not one should ask for a “dirty” variant and mix olive brine with the spirit. Then we move on to the garnish, which can include olives, a lemon twist, or cocktail onions.

   Most bartenders would agree that the gin version is more traditional, and, given a choice, that’s the direction they would choose in making a signature drink. Over the years, many martini drinkers reduced the liquor-to-vermouth ratio so much that it became almost an afterthought (a taste of month-old, stale, mass-produced vermouth will reveal why it was forgotten until only recently), as craft vermouth has become a thing. Some bartenders, like Scott Tipton of Bread & Butter Concepts, have gone to the opposite extreme, using 50/50 gin-vermouth blends.

   “I love the way a good gin and a good vermouth harmonize,” he says. “I love the 50/50 blend.”

   I personally prefer a classic London Dry with the best dry vermouth I can afford, in a 3-to-1 ratio, stirred and not shaken — sorry, Mr. Bond — with a lemon twist (and maybe a dash of bitters).

   The brown-liquor equivalent of the martini is the Old Fashioned. A friend once said he thought this cocktail was the perfect suit accessory. It certainly lives up to its name: the recipe dates back to the early 19th century, and it reportedly received its name in 1881 where a bartender at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky., made it in honor of distiller James E. Pepper.

   Like the martini, the Old Fashioned lends itself to variations, though the discussion around this drink tends to be much more collegial — rye or bourbon (and which one) and what bitters to choose. Rye will typically make a slightly more aromatic and more dry cocktail. When I asked Andrew Olsen of Bluestem which he preferred, he was quick with an answer.

   “Go with rye because it’s spicy and dry,” he says. “Rittenhouse 100 is the classic.” 

    Bourbon will elevate the richness and sweetness. Angostura bitters are classic, but there are plenty of new and interesting variations that merit an experiment.

   Perhaps the greatest power cocktail involves two ingredients — Scotch whisky and water in some form — and the greatest controversy would be whether to even include the water.  Scotch on the rocks is a choice that conjures up visions of libraries, clubs and boardrooms, or perhaps winter and a roaring fire. A good blended Scotch with ice is a refined, smooth way to enjoy life.

   As single-malt scotch became more popular in the ‘90s, there emerged a school of thought that these “pure” expressions should not be tainted by diluting them with ice. Pour a Lagavulin 16 for a scotch drinker, and like as not they will ask for it neat in an effort to preserve complexity and intensity.

   Recently, a third school of thought has emerged, and there’s actually science to back it up. The Scots are known for adding a splash of water to even the most rarified whiskey, and in 2017 a pair of Swedish scientists proved that it improves the scotch experience. Modeling the interaction of alcohol, water and a compound called guaiacol that gives Scotch much of its flavor showed that water helped release more guaiacol to the surface of the whiskey, enhancing the flavors and aromas.

   If you want a real power trip, accessorize with one of these potent drinks.


Old Fashioned

2 ounces rye or bourbon

3 dashes bitters (Angostura or your choice)

1 sugar cube (or about one cube’s worth loose sugar)

Splash club soda

Put the sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Wet the sugar with the bitters, and add a small splash of club soda. If using a sugar cube, use a muddler to break it up into pieces. Rotate the glass slowly and carefully to give the inside a wash. Add a large ice cube — this is where those fancy trays come in handy — and add the whiskey. Stir until the drink is cold. Garnish with orange peel (optional).

 

Jim Coley’s Martini

2 1/2 ounces London Dry Gin

3/4 ounce high-quality dry vermouth

Add both components to an ice-filled shaker. Stir to chill and mix, then strain into a glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.