Photo by Adam Jaime on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
My favorite mixed drink is a throwback. Or maybe it’s hipster. More likely, it’s in the midst of a revival. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s all of the above.
It’s a bit of a phenomenon, this everything-old-is-new-again thing with alcohol. Case in point, I ate at one of the hot new-ish Detroit restaurants this weekend and was shocked to see that the beer at the top of the moderately-impressive beer list was Hamm’s.
Hamm’s, for those of you who don’t know, has been around since 1865, originating in the Land of Sky Blue Waters, a.k.a. Minneapolis-St. Paul, and has been enjoying an impressive revival of its fortunes, thanks to expanded distribution (read: money). But Hamm’s isn’t the first old-timey beer to become too cool for school. First it was PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon). Even our beloved Stroh’s has appreciated a resurgence of interest (even though it’s not really Stroh’s, since it’s not brewed in Detroit anymore, but I digress).
Some claim its newfound popularity is in direct response to the over-the-top hops trend in the beer world. Still others say it’s a price revolt. I will admit, even with my died-in-the-wool inside baseball perspective, $14.99 for a four-pack of cans, even if they’re sixteen ounces, seems a little…gutsy.
Whatever it is, it has caused a serious surge in Beers Your Grandpa Loved being featured at the top of hipster craft cocktail bar beer lists. I mean, seriously. Hamm’s? At Grey Ghost?
Let’s dive into this a bit. Since my favorite booze has been experiencing the sort of revival rarely seen outside of the entertainment industry’s penchant for reboots of crappy old TV shows, we’ll talk about it.
Bourbon. Stump water. Corn liquor. Ruckus juice. Bootleg.
You name it. It’s everywhere. Once upon a time, it was the sole purview of my home state, a.k.a. Kentucky. Even now, over 90% of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky.
Bourbon is whiskey, which by definition is a spirit distilled from grain, typically rye or barley. But thanks to a combination of factors, Kentucky became home to a sweeter, somewhat smoother version of this traditional liquor. The state’s wide temperature swings — sweaty hot summers and chilly winters — are ideal as it allows the charred barrels to expand and contract throughout the aging process, which means the future bourbon is both absorbed and released, leading to a better tasting product. But even prior to that stage of the process, the water, which is low in iron thanks to the deposits of blue limestone underneath the majority of the commonwealth, has near-perfect levels of calcium and magnesium to create the amber liquor of choice for a lot of folks these days.
The second ingredient, corn, is one of the state’s most successful crops. Rye was more plentiful in Maryland and Pennsylvania, but once the distillers made it over the Appalachians and discovered miles of cheap corn crops, cool, sweet water, and the perfect climate, booze history was changed forever.
Popular mythology claims that a Baptist minister named Elijah Craig invented what we know as bourbon by storing his whiskey in some wooden barrels that were burned in a fire. It’s well accepted that while that is a pretty story, it’s not much more than that. However, if you know bourbon, you know that “Elijah Craig” is one of the old family names that grace many a bottle of said amber nectar.
Some of the others — Blanton’s, Basil Haydon, Booker’s, Evan Williams, Jim Beam, Ripy, Van Winkle, to name just a few — are families that were among the first to distill, perfect, and age this sweeter version of traditional whiskey. These days, while Kentucky is home to the majority of the best bourbons in the world, almost every last drop of it is crafted by a handful of conglomerate distilleries. For example, some of the most popular commercial bourbons — Maker’s Mark, Baker’s, Booker’s, Basil Hayden, Knob Creek and Old Grand Dada — are brands owned by Jim Beam.
The name “bourbon” has its own origin mythology. It’s widely accepted that it was inspired by Bourbon County, Kentucky, which is located in the central part of the state, near Lexington, which was named to honor the French royal family to thank them for their help with the American Revolution. Its original geography encompassed a huge swath of the central part of the state, and distillers slapped the name as the “county of origin” on their barrels before shipping them around the country. Another popular theory is that it’s derived from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where the drink was popular in French Quarter saloons.
The new-fangled trend these days with a liquor that was declared America’s National Spirit by Congress in 1964 is the release of “pre-prohibition” (read: stronger) versions of their original recipes. This allows for fairly egregious over-charging at bars and package stores, or something we marketing experts like to call “re-branding the toothpaste.” But even I’ll admit that the 1920 Old Forrester (Brown Forman) is absolutely incredible. Akin to a fine porter or stout with its rich, chocolate notes, it almost allows you to muscle through the near $80 price tag. But I’m digressing again.
Bourbon is something that I personally break down into three categories: sipping, mixing, and over a cube of ice. So as not to make this a fifty-page tasting notes-heavy treatise on the why and wherefore of this, let’s talk about mixing, and in so doing, (finally) circle back to the point of this month’s boozey side trip.
The Old Fashioned. A.k.a My and Don Draper’s drink of choice.
In its most classic (read: proper) iteration, The Old Fashioned, which was born at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Kentucky, is a mixture of sugar, angostura bitters, club soda, and bourbon (or rye, but trust me it’s better with bourbon). You put a sugar cube in the bottom of and Old Fashioned glass (yeah, it has its own glass, but so does a mint julep and a Moscow mule). Wet it down with the bitters and a splash of club soda (or water). Muddle the sugar, then rotate the glass so the sugar and bitters coat the inside. Add a big ice cube and pour in the bourbon. You garnish with an orange twist and (sometimes, but not always) a cocktail cherry. It’s a stirred drink, and is sometimes served with the stirring rod.
It’s a perfect blend of sweet, bitter, and corn liquor. I know some would argue in favor of the Manhattan as the perfect amber liquor drink. I would strongly disagree, although a well-crafted Manhattan is a lovely way to mix your bourbon. They’re both “spirit-forward” in that you’re going to taste the booze in it, so if you prefer the kind of cocktail that disguises the fact that you’re imbibing, this is not for you.
Now that bourbon and its many classic cocktails have become the Hamm’s of the liquor world, there’s another distressing trend. The de-bourbonification of The Old Fashioned. Or to put it even more directly, the New Old Fashioned has become something of a hobby for hipster mixologists. I’ve seen bizarre additions like ginger ale, St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), maple syrup, bacon, gin (!), grapefruit, tequila (!), chocolate bitters, and rum (!). Not to mention any and all nature of bitters infused with everything from pecans, black currants, cocoa, and cotton candy.
I am all for creativity at the bar, mind you. One of my favorite places to drink here in Ann Arbor is Aventura, where the bartenders do all sorts of wacky things, and have even been known to take a base liquor and flavor and craft something not on the menu, just for fun. Remind me to describe the basil, bourbon, and ginger concoction they made for me once.
I’m also for the revival of old-school beers, and for thousands of people asking me if Jim Beam is my favorite bourbon. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. But you get the idea.
My argument in favor of keeping the Old Fashioned old is in keeping with the resurgence of Grandpa Beers. Did you see how I did that full circle thing right there? The new-fangled popularity of Hamms, PBR, and Stroh’s isn’t due to any monkeying around with their original recipe. They’re newly popular because of that original recipe. They’re not hoppy, or juicy, or citrus-y, but they are low in ABV, making them session-able (i.e. you can drink more than one in a drinking session).
They are, in a word, basic. And their basic nature is what makes them fun, and, apparently, worthy of top billing at a restaurant that claims to be a hip spot for steaks, beer, and craft cocktails. Note: Grey Ghost is a great place to eat. The bartenders are super awesome and make a mean classic Old Fashioned.
Keep the Old Fashioned classic. That’s my campaign slogan. And I approve this message.