|In this town, no two Old-Fashioneds are alike.|
The resurgence of cocktail culture means the martini and the Manhattan are again bar standardsbut their dowdy yet delicious cousin, the Old-Fashioned, still resides in obscurity. In his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh advises that the astute Old-Fashioned mixer should simply muddle two dashes of bitters, half a teaspoon of sugar, and a few drops of water with an orange peel, then add bourbon or rye and a few ice cubes. With this recipe in mind, we set out to find a proper Old-Fashioned on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood steeped in bootlegger history. But with gangster-themed Lansky Lounge closed and the opening of cocktail temple-to-be East Side Company endlessly delayed (or perhaps just hidden), the task proved tough. Of the five bartenders we tested, only two succeeded: Illtyd of Barramundi and Andrew of Whiskey Ward.
The Challenge: Could I get an Old-Fashioned, please?
67 Clinton St., between Stanton and Rivington Sts.; 212-529-6900
Bartender Name: Illtyd
Bartender Reaction: After a cheerful “no,” Illtyd rolled his eyes, asked for the drink’s ingredients, then finished our sentence and quickly mixed the drink.
Ingredients: Bitters; sugar; crushed bits of maraschino cherries and unidentifiable citrus; the bar’s decent well whiskey.
Taste: A perfect bitters-to-sugar ratio made for an excellent drink, drawing out the whiskey's spicey and sweet undertones without overwhelming the brown liquor that should be this production's star.
The Verdict: Some sources consider this much fruit untraditional, but the mixture was typical of the drink’s contemporary incarnation and was capably executednot to mention well-priced. Barramundi easily took first place.
84 Stanton St., at Allen St.; 212-477-2232
Bartender Name: Alex
Bartender Reaction: With more disinterest than shame, “I don’t know how to make that.” A fellow patron stepped up with instructions.
Ingredients: Bitters; sugar; maraschino cherries, slices of lemon, lime, and orange; Seagram’s 7.
Taste: Too much bitters and too many limes gave Epstein’s Old-Fashioned an unpleasant spiciness.
The Verdict: The disqualified drinks from Motor City and Sin-e were better than this one.
127 Ludlow St., between Rivington and Delancey Sts.; 212-358-1595
Bartender Name: Jodi
Bartender Reaction: “No one’s asked me for one of these in years,” but long-time and expert bartender Jodi went ahead gamely.
Ingredients: Sugar; small lemon wedge and small lime wedge; your call on the booze brand, but ours was Knob Creek.
Taste: A delicate hand on the ingredientsand a notable absence of bittersmeant that little interfered with one of our favorite bourbons.
The Verdict: Without bitters it just isn’t an Old-Fashioned. Then again, we’d had enough bitters at Epstein’s and it’s hard not to love a nice glass of bourbon. We had to disqualify this entrantbut we ordered another one, anyway.
150 Attorney St., at Stanton St.; 212-388-0077
Bartender Name: Gerri
Bartender Reaction: Old Fashioned? “I have sugar and. . . what else do I need?” Bitters. “We don’t have bitters. How about a Manhattan instead?”
Ingredients: Sweet vermouth; maraschino cherries; Maker’s Mark.
Taste: Slightly sweet, this unsurprisingly tasted like a Manhattan rather than an Old-Fashioned.
The Verdict: A nice enough Manhattan, but we had to disqualify it.
121 Essex St., between Rivington and Delancey Sts.; 212-477-2998
Bartender Name: Andrew
Bartender Reaction: This friendly bartender paused to recite the ingredients to us, let us name our pick of brown liquor, then got to work.
Ingredients: Bitters; sugar; maraschino cherries; Woodford Reserve at our request.
Taste: Extra cherries made this sweeter than ideal, but not over-poweringly so.
The Verdict: It's fitting that a bar named in tribute to the neighborhood's hard-drinking history would deliver one of the top contendersbut Ward's extensive selection of whiskeys deserve to be enjoyed neat or on the rocks.