Last Sunday I had what was I’m fairly sure not my first Old Fashioned, but definitely the first Old Fashioned I’ve enjoyed sober, and thus fully appreciated and remembered in its entirety. While I am officially qualified in Wines and Spirits – to what I’ve been told is an “advanced level” no less (I’m sceptical on that point but that’s besides the point) – to get to that point you have to taste a very many wines and absolutely no spirits. I was told yesterday that the main ingredient of an Old Fashioned is Bourbon, which instantly had me racking my brains for what I know about Bourbon.
- It’s generally from America.
- Not being from Scotland, it’s ‘whiskey’ not ‘whisky.’
- It has to be aged for at least two years and the barrels it matures in must be new, must be charred, and cannot be reused.
- The grain mixture used has to be at least 51% maize.
- It gives its name to a rather nice, simply chocolate biscuit that I loved as a child and can still eat an entire packet of in one sitting.[i]
None of this really gives one an idea of what the stuff actually tastes like. I’ve tried a sip of bourbon on the rocks before, and pulled a rather impressively ugly face in doing so. I’ve also tried Jack Daniels (a Tennessee whiskey, which is basically bourbon that has been subjected to the Lincoln County Process. I won’t bore you with that – unless you wish to be bored, in which case scroll down and read this footnote[ii]) and pulled a really rather similar, equally unattractive face. The honey edition is, I’m ashamed to say, much more to my liking; ashamed only because I’m fairly sure the adding of copious amounts of sugar was done with the express purpose of targeting those people like me, unable to stomach The Hard Stuff. This doctoring of the original product offends me a bit; if I’m drinking, I’d rather be drinking the liquor proper and not be honey-trapped into it.
Enter: The Old Fashioned.
As a whiskey-based cocktail, it’s pretty perfect. It does absolutely everything I need it to: a bitters-spiked sugar cube sweetens the bourbon while extensive muddling with ice dilutes the fierce, funny face-inducing kick. It comes in a short, stocky tumbler glass, granting me confidence that my drink is not overly flouncy and the name also negates any possible feelings of flounce (it’s a proper Old Fashioned cocktail dontchya know.) The orange round the rim is just the icing on the cake, if only ‘cause it smells delicious. Dilution from the melting ice enables me to actually taste – and enjoy – the smoky fragrance of the bourbon usually upstaged on my tongue by the aforementioned offensive kick. In fact, the Old Fashioned achieves everything that JD Honey sets out to, but it leaves me unashamed, un-offended, and contentedly smiling over the rim of my glass; I am officially an Old Fashioned fan.
I’m generally a fan of many things old fashioned. I’m fairly sure I’m breaking no moulds in that, and am in fact bang on a current consumer trend. The abundance of ‘make love not war’, ‘keep calm and carry on’ and other wartime propaganda paraphernalia and similar, the rise of apps that make X megapixel digital photographs look like they were taken on an aged Polaroid, not to mention the slightly sickening kitschness of the Great British Bake Off (I love it) with its faux-retro pastel coloured Kitchen Aid mixers (I want one[iii]) is testament to that. So is the consumer trends report that my company paid many pounds sterling for and which I’ve spent many hours in the office pouring over. The trend is called retro, or nostalgia, and apparently we as consumers take comfort from it, from the past. Only it’s an entirely imagined and in that imagining an entirely idealised past, one that skips over the countless negative aspects of history, focusing only on the very few positives and romanticising them.
To me however, that description has an underlying cynicism and even mocking tone, as those we consumers are foolish in our beliefs. I disagree, wholeheartedly and entirely. Consider products currently available with a wartime feel. We should never forget the sacrifices made for our freedom and the suffering people underwent, but to make it something recreated in our gift cards and crockery would cheapen it, being sickeningly disrespectful. I’m not suggesting that that’s something that would ever be done. However, as the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and the sense of positivity, of strength in numbers, of pulling together, supporting your friends and neighbours, of pride in our peers and in our country, of gritting your teeth and getting by, of knowing that bad times can’t last forever, taking what you can from life, and of appreciating that there some things are worth sacrificing a lot – even everything – for; those surely are things of wonder and beauty, miraculously arising a thing as horrific as war. They are the poppies on No Man’s Land.
If metal signs stating ‘Make Do And Mend’ or ‘We Need YOU!’ help recreate even a hint of those positive, silver-lining feelings, then why not enjoy them? When I want to bake, I could do it with shiny silver NASA-worthy kitchen gadgetry, or I could do it with a *cough*pistachio green*cough*, probably slightly over-priced but no less beautiful or functional for it, retro-style mixer that makes me smile every time I see it. Or it does in my head at least; until I have saved up enough to be able to afford either of those I have to be truly on trend and stick to Ol’ Faithful, my wooden spoon.
Earlier this year I attended Henley Regatta, being fortunate enough to be invited as my mother’s Plus One as a guest in the Stewards’ Enclosure. I was much panicked, and later, having bought a new dress en route and being able to exhale again, also mildly amused, by the strict rule that ladies’ skirts must be below the knee. There is even a member of staff on the gate checking ladies’ skirt length upon entry, and people are genuinely refused entry if their attire is not deemed appropriate. This is apparently to ensure the continued feeling of an Edwardian picnic. Legend has it, as much as stories from within the last half century can count as legend, that in the 1970s a girl turned up in a long skirt, absolutely and entirely topless, in an attempt to highlight what she thought was the ridiculous nature of the rule. Breasts out on display for all to see, but knees most modestly covered, she was admitted without anyone batting an eyelid. Denied her no doubt much anticipated dramatic scene, she hurriedly pulled a top out of her bag and covered up for the duration of her day at the Regatta.
Bizarre, trivial and old fashioned as the rule may seem, I rather liked it. It was lovely wandering around with my mother, sipping Pimms and lemonade, or flutes of champagne, watching rowing, eating lunch, chatting with our host, one of my mother’s university friends and a Cambridge professor of Philosophy. It was made special not least in virtue of being able to spend the entire day almost exclusively me and Mum. But that in itself was made memorable and exciting by the novelty of being dressed up, and taking a seat on the Umpire’s Launch to watch our very first race, I had little doubt that it would not have felt the same in jeans and a hoodie. All dressed up – a really rather pretty dress if I do say so myself – with one hand on my hat keeping it in place as we drifted through sunshine to the start line, I was unconsciously glad my knees were modestly covered, if only for elegance and decorum’s sake. It must be said that the headpiece was swiftly relegated to being clutched in my hands once the race began, as it would have stood absolutely no chance of reaching the finish line with the rest of the boat. Generous as I like to think I am, I wasn’t willing to gift the ducks of the Thames with my cream fascinator.
Of course there are many old fashioned things that as far as I am concerned should be buried in the past, doomed to exist only in history books as a reminder to mankind not to make the same mistakes twice: homophobia, racism, gender-biased suffrage and sexism to name but a few. The Church’s dated opinions on contraception came up in conversation over tea with a friend yesterday, and to me this is a reminder that habit and tradition should never been stuck to for their own sake. They lose their relevance and thus any benefits they may once have been thought to have. It is so easy to get stuck in ruts because it requires more effort to climb out of them than to continue trudging the old path, regardless of whom we may hurt in doing so. But, where the nostalgic and traditional bring comfort and cosiness, elegance and ambiance, without any hurt or suffering in tow, I raise my short, stocky glass, ice clinking and sugar-muddled bourbon glowing, and say “jolly good show.”
[i] I don’t know why this is, so if anyone can enlighten me as to why a spirit shares its name with a chocolate biscuit, please do.
[ii] The Lincoln County Process (not country process, as my fingers keep trying to type) involved filtering bourbon through charcoal made with maple wood. If you’re really interested, then you can either do your own research or skip the first step and just click here.
[iii] It’s pistachio green I’d like, if you’re feeling generous.