Old Fashioned refashioned at Wildebeest

Cocktail-forward restaurant serving nine new takes on the classic for its fifth birthday

Four of the nine variations on the Old Fashioned on the menu at Wildebeest, which include versions made with rum, gin, tequila and bacon bourbon. Wildebeest photo

The Old Fashioned is, arguably, the original cocktail, or at least, the whisky version of it.

“Cock-tail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters,” reported The Balance, and Columbian Repository way back in 1806, adding: “It is vulgarly called bittered sling.”

What the Old Fashioned – or bittered sling – actually is, is a template for creativity. It’s typically made with bourbon or rye, a muddled sugar cube and Angostura bitters, but who says it needs to be made with sugar? Or Angostura? Or even whisky, for that matter?

“As I interpret it, it refers to the method, not the ingredients,” says Josh Pape, bar manager and co-owner of Wildebeest restaurant.

“It’s a great cocktail to showcase any spirit, and it makes a darn good drink. All spirits benefit from water, and the bitters just complement their deliciousness.”

Right now, as Wildebeest celebrates its fifth anniversary, the cocktail-forward restaurant is proving how just versatile the Old Fashioned formula can be by showcasing nine different variations on it.

There are four made with bourbon: one sweet and vanilla scented; another intensely fruity and smoky; and a third mixed with the menthol bitterness of Fernet Branca. The fourth comprises fat-washed bacon, maple syrup and an orange twist – think of it as brunch in a glass.

Then there are the other spirits. There are two tequila Old Fashioneds, a bright, citrusy one made with blanco and another with the savoury pepper and cedar notes of añejo. There’s a simple rum version that tastes of toffee, dried plums and cinnamon, and a more complex variation made with three different rums, chocolate and orange bitters and an apple juice ice cube.

Finally, there’s a gin Old Fashioned, fragrant with the rose-and-cucumber perfume of Hendrick’s gin, plus honey and lavender bitters. A little surprisingly, it’s turned out to be the most popular of them all (see recipe).

“It’s so refreshing. It’s an amazing cocktail. It just goes down so easily,” Pape says, though he admits his own favourite is the bourbon and Fernet garnished with a mint sprig. “It’s definitely more bartender-y.”

Pape started experimenting with the Old Fashioned years ago. He started with rum, because dark rums have many of the same flavour profiles as whisky – rich fruit, baking spice, toffee and the like.

“I’d made rum ones here and there, and tequila ones here and there, and people loved them,” he said.

In fact, people love the Old Fashioned so much it became, well, not a problem exactly, but a challenge for the bartenders at Wildebeest to keep up with demand. A proper Old Fashioned takes time to make – as much as two minutes of careful stirring – and that can be tough on a busy bar.

So Pape looked at ways of streamlining the process while still crafting a quality drink. In some cases, that meant replacing the traditional sugar cube with honey or maple syrup, which takes less time to stir into the drink.

“We still make them with the traditional method, though,” he says. “It’s the slow introduction of spirits that makes it an Old Fashioned.”

He adds the spirit in four pours, stirring gently after each, and serving the drink on big, beautiful ice cubes.

“It’s almost like the first bit of spirit has more water and becomes a bit more flabby. Every layer after that has a bit more complexity,” he says.

Bourbon, tequila, rum or gin, the Old Fashioned is the perfect spirit-forward cocktail, and customers have fallen for the Wildebeest lineup.

And it’s more than just a birthday special. “There’s no risk of it coming off the menu any time soon,” Pape says.

We’ll raise a glass to that – and make it a double.

—by Joanne Sasvari

Make the Hendrick’s Gin Old Fashioned

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