Getting It The Old Fashioned Way

OldFash It shouldn't be too difficult to send back a glass or a bottle of wine that your server delivered to your table. After all, if you are worried about what your server will think just keep in mind they are not responsible for the production of the wine so it's not likely they'll take offense.

But what about when you send back a mixed drink, a cocktail, because you don't like the way it was made and therefore is not what you ordered—even though the bartender heard you loud and clear? In this case the person who sat the drink in front of you is exactly the person who produced it. What's the protocol for this situation.

I was out the other night at the bar at a wonderful restaurant in Napa. I ordered a Old Fashioned, that most classic of cocktails. What was set in front of me was a brownish, fizzy liquid that more resembled pond water than one of the great cocktails in the history of cocktails.

The problem I faced was that this is the mixture that probably 80% of bartenders will serve you when you ask for an Old Fashioned today. Yet, it clearly is not what a true old fashioned is supposed to be. But even more important is that this is the drink that most people are looking for when they order an Old Fashioned.

Do I send it back? After all, the bartender gave me what most of those ordering an Old Fashioned would expect, even though it wasn't a real old fashioned.

I did. I sent it back for this reason: I ordered a specific drink. I know how that drink is made. I know how that drink tastes. Finally, I sent it back because no one ever got kick out of a bar for not liking a mixed drink.

These days an Old Fashioned is like to be made like this:
1. Place a cube of sugar, a cherry and an orange in a glass
2. Muddle contents of glass
3. Fill glass with ice
4. Pour in Bourbon (or Brandy if you are in the Midwest)
5. Top with various amounts of Soda Water or 7-up

This is not an Old Fashioned. This is what a once simple and stately and classic cocktail became during prohibition when much alcohol being served was horrid and you needed something with that horrid tasting alcohol to mask it's bad nature. This mixture now called the "Old Fashioned" lived on after Prohibition and became even further bastardized in some cases, but slowly became accepted as an Old Fashioned, barely resembling what it really should be, which is this:

1. Place cube of sugar or simple syrup in an Old Fashioned Glass

2. Put a teaspoon and a half of water and two or three shakes of bitter with sugar

3. Dissolve Sugar and mix together bitters and water and sugar

4. Add ice to top of glass and stir for about a minute

5. Twist an orange peel liberally over the ice, release oil mist into glass

6. Add one and a half ounces of bourbon, stir again

7. Garnish with cherry and/or an orange peel.

Notice: No muddling. No splash or soda. No splash of water. It is the simplest of cocktails: Spirit, bitters, sugar, water.

The other night, after I sent back my Old Fashioned and order a Manhattan as a substitute, I eventually wanted a second drink. I decided I would tell the bartender exactly what I wanted and I described to him how I wanted him to make my Old Fashioned. He followed orders perfectly, noting along the way that he'd never heard of making an Old Fashioned like this. 

I don't like to send back drinks at a bar. It calls too much attention to me, puts the bartender in a pissy mood and makes me out as a difficult customer. On the other hand I want the drink I want.

So, when in the mood for an Old Fashioned these days, I first try to assess the bar and its staff, guessing whether or not I'm in a place that knows how to make a real Old Fashioned. I generally determine it's not, if only because the odds, shaped over decades of bartenders being taught to make pond water rather than a classic, are against me. What works best it to ask the bartender for "a classic Old Fashioned—No muddling please". This I think will force them to ask exactly how I want it made. But the thing here is that they are asking, rather than me telling. It sets a different tone.

That said, I firmly believe that when you are presented with a mixed drink or cocktail that is not what you wanted and when you know the drink was not made correctly, you should send it back, the same way you'd send back a bottle or glass of wine that is flawed.


10 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - November 3, 2009

    Probably the bartender, in this case, appreciated the lesson and maybe learned a thing or two.
    A few years back on a trip to Australia, I made a mistake. My fault. I ordered a Mojito. Now, understand, after two weeks of Shiraz and beer, I thought that a cool, refreshing drink would be fun. Besides, we were in a nice place and the Mojito was right there on the drinks list.
    When it came, one of the two bartenders brought it over and bravely announced that she had never made one before, but he other bartender, Sean, knew exactly how to make one. He had read it in a book.
    Long story short, the drink was simply lemon juice to excess, rum and a couple of mints leaves that had been destroyed into a brown paste. It was awful, simply awful.
    I knew right away it was my fault. Dumb American orders a drink in Australia that no one down there ever drinks. So, I sat there, sort of sipping this sour mess. But, like you, I finally decided to do something and I sidled over to the bar and taught the bartender one makes a Mojito at my house.
    I won’t say I am the perfect Mojito maker, but the second one was a lot better than the first. And, I never got charged for either one. Sometimes, it does make sense to speak up.

  2. Brooks - November 3, 2009

    I agree almost entirely. The caveat is that if you as a customer know that a drink has evolved and that you want a now-unusual preparation, that’s on you. You get at that at the end, and saying “no muddling” is a perfect way to handle it.
    The first time around when you ordered a drink that you knew would be wrong in “most” places, I think that’s on you. Sending it back is fine; I just hope you tipped as if you hadn’t. The bartender doesn’t care about liquor costs, just tips, so sending it back but tipping the $2 or $3 would be a great way to handle it, especially if you’re planning to return to the place and want a warm welcome and your drink made your way next time.

  3. The Wine Mule - November 3, 2009

    My God I’ve lived a sheltered life. Carbonated anything in a Manhattan? Really? (Actually, I’ve heard about the brandy thing, I think I read about it in an article about dining out in Milwaukee…)

  4. TheRideInside - November 3, 2009

    I wonder if the bars in Florence know how to make one. Next time im out, ill order an Old Fashioned and let you know. They can make a pretty mean Negroni, though.

  5. Ms. Drinkwell - November 3, 2009

    This post brings up something that I think about often, which is where to get a solid classic cocktail in N. California. I admire the creativity and skill of a talented mixologist who makes new interpretations of the classics using fancy local ingredients, but sometimes I just want a plain old (correctly made) Gibson from a bartender. Where to go?

  6. Benito - November 3, 2009

    My own horror story was with a Mint Julep. It was Derby Day, I was in a chain restaurant with an extensive bar, and I thought, “why not?” I’d made many of my own and I remain fond of the cocktail.
    Honestly I wouldn’t have minded if the waitress came back and said, “No, we don’t have the ingredients”, but instead she showed up with a off-brown beverage and said, “The bartender didn’t know how to make a Mint Julep, so he improvised. This is on the house.” It was Crown Royal and Creme de Menthe topped off with 7-Up. Served over ice with a cherry, for some reason. It was… nasty.

  7. Nick - November 4, 2009

    Ordering Manhattans in any bar is an irritating minefield. Few bartenders seem to make them with bitters anymore, and will swear…SWEAR that they were never made that way.

  8. Dylan - November 4, 2009

    Ah yes. This happened to me when I ordered a Dark N’ Stormy off the menu at restaurant. What a debackle that became. Fortunately, the waiter was kind to admit in advance it might not be prepared how I expected. He was right and took it back without any issue.

  9. Ann Carson - November 6, 2009

    My original brand of having cuban cigars gives the real taste of cigar for those who want to taste the original taste of cigar made from the USA

  10. Samantha - November 8, 2009

    Damn cigar spammers…ugh! Mine was a Bloody Mary, the server came back to the table and told me, “We are out of the wine we use for that so we are going to figure something out”…horrified, I was horrified. If you are using wine in your regular Bloody Marys what the hell are you going to put in now, it was bubbly…gack!

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