‘Cocktail Hour’ is what my mother called it. It was the hour or two of cocktails that preceded our family dinner, every Saturday, in my hometown of London, England. My mother, a non-drinker, would order a virgin Pina Colada. My father, with his leg crossed over his knee, would order “the usual,” with the gentle reminder, “Don’t forget the cherry.”
I would sit anxiously, in my lace frilled cardigan and signature French braid, watching and waiting for my father to savor his drink. Finally, he would pass me his empty tumbler and I would dive into the glass to fish out the bourbon-soaked cherry with my fingers. I was eight years old and remember the taste vividly – sweet and smoky with a hint of orange marmalade. The residual alcohol would burn my throat, but I enjoyed the sensation. My father, patiently watching me, would put out his hand signaling for me to pass back the glass before ordering his second. My front row seat to cocktail hour is how I was introduced to this classic drink: The Old Fashioned.
Fast forward 20 years, I am now living in Toronto and the slightest scent of an Old Fashioned takes me back to that treasured daddy-daughter ritual. However, these days, sipping the cocktail has evolved into a comfort for when home and my childhood feel so far away.
The Old Fashioned cocktail originated in Louisville, Kentucky at a private Gentlemen’s’ social club, and the recipe was said to have been taken to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Bar in New York by the creator, a Bourbon expert. The original ingredients consist of a dissolved sugar cube, a few dashes of Angostura bitters, bourbon and a citrus peel, all poured over ice and served short. The recipe has developed over time, with many places adding a maraschino or glacier cherry as garnish. The depth and citrusy sweetness of the cocktail make it both the perfect aperitif and nightcap.
With Toronto being my new home, I took it upon myself to see what the city had to offer when it came to my dear Old Fashioned and I was comforted by the selection. Here are my picks for the best I have found:
The Classic, Library Bar, Fairmont Royal York HotelDim, sultry lights and Sinatra lyrics flowing over the sound of an acoustic guitar, rustic aged bookshelves, and tuxedo-dressed bartenders. The perfect backdrop for a classic Old Fashioned. I sit at the bar and ask for exactly that. “Which bourbon would you like, madam?” to which I respond, “Your choice, just please make it the classic way.” He selects Bulleit Bourbon. In a short, intricately embossed glass, he crushes a brown sugar ice cube with water and adds the bitters, before adding the bourbon and ice. I am mesmerized by the swirling of the ingredients in the glass and I see the condensation around it building, along with my excitement. The final touch of a burnt orange peel and a dark cherry complete the cocktail. “Voila!” the bartender announces, before placing the cocktail on a coaster in front of me. I pick up the glass and take my first sip slowly. “It’s perfect.”
The Twist, Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen
I walk into Chubby’s and instantly get that warm vacation feeling. The hostess signals to the upstairs bar and I quickly make my way up the narrow flight of stairs to the second level of the restaurant. Laughter, “Cheers!”, and the smell of Jamaican spices fill the room. The music switches back and forth between salsa beats and 90’s classics. I perch myself on a bar stool and promptly receive a menu. I am excited. I get a walk-through of the cocktail list and ironically get directed to the ‘Buffalo Soldier’. “This is our take on the Old Fashioned, it’s our signature cocktail. Real good.” says the bartender who exudes a quirky confidence. Within a few minutes, my drink is served. I bring it close to inspect the grilled pineapple garnish. As I take my first sip, I re-read the ingredients. Buffalo Soldier Bourbon, pineapple, nutmeg shrub, demerara sugar and walnut bitters. I can taste every ingredient as the flavors burst in my mouth. There is something wholesome and hearty about this drink. For a second, I close my eyes and my mind wanders to the beach. I immediately feel relaxed as I think of white sand and the waves hitting my feet.
The Showstopper, The Cloak
I walk into this discreet establishment nestled in the midst of the downtown hustle and bustle. It’s a speakeasy – cozy, warm and understated. The place is buzzing and full to the brim, but luckily I had reserved ahead. Once seated, I immediately start exploring their highly descriptive menu. Usually, I do not like to share, but when an Earl Grey Old Fashioned is on offer as a shareable drink, I will make an exception. The cocktail appears like the crown jewels; it has a royal presence. It is served in a crystal glass flask and with four short glasses. The display is beautiful, and the serving style makes it the envy of neighboring tables. It is receiving attention- and so it should. The British in me is revived, as I sip away, unlocking the subtle flavors of the tea. The combination of ingredients is simple yet effective. Evan Williams Bourbon, Earl Grey tea, angostura and orange bitters. Elegant and sophisticated yet still trendy and fashionable. A true showstopper.
Call me old fashioned, but this cocktail will forever be my chosen classic.