When it comes to cocktails, Americans’ tastes have evolved quite a bit over the last decade.
Few people know this better than Eben Klemm, a former scientist-turned-mixologist who currently curates cocktails for New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel. He also collaborates with various restaurants and bars — like Pearl & Ash, Le Diplomate, and Uptown Brasserie — through his consulting company, Cane & Maple.
According to Klemm, drinkers aren’t just sticking to sweet concoctions anymore.
“There’s been a general movement [towards] acceptance of strong, complex, and bittersweet drinks,” he said. “Almost any place I put them on the menu, they’re one of the top sellers.”
By “strong” and “bittersweet,” Klemm means the Old Fashioned, and to a lesser extent, the Negroni.
“Any decent bar or restaurant in almost any city in this country now can and will sell Negronis and Old Fashioneds. These were unsellable a decade ago,” he said.
The Old Fashioned was extremely popular in the 1960s, but it was nearly forgotten as the years passed. As for why we all suddenly can’t get enough of the Old Fashioned, Klemm attributes its popularity to an evolving drinking culture that gave rise to new bars with inventive, imaginative cocktail lists. Even the most basic of bars have added cocktail menus to their offerings.
“The ubiquity of good cocktail menus has kind of made everyone more aware of good cocktails. If you walk into a cocktail bar and see a menu item with 20 ingredients on it … the Old Fashioned is the safe space. They recognize it,” Klemm said. “People will order things that they know because they will understand the flavor profile of it, more or less.”
In a survey of 100 bars in 2016, Drinks International magazine found that three-quarters of bartenders ranked the Old Fashioned among their top 10 best-sellers, while a quarter said that it was their No. 1 most popular menu item. The Negroni, a similarly strong and bitter cocktail, came in second.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for creativity, however.
“The Old Fashioned is, by definition, not a specific cocktail, but a collection of ideas. I’ve put spins on it that are definitely unique,” he said.
Klemm also notes that more people have begun to enjoy high-quality liquors, especially whiskey. A cocktail that’s stirred, like the Old Fashioned, lends itself well to that enjoyment.
“Stirring shows off alcohol better. If you’re spending on brands, it tends to bring appreciation more,” he said. “If you’re shaking up a spirit with juice, you have sort of diminishing returns in terms of recognizing the spirit used in it.”
“The only thing that’s going to slow down the enjoyment of whiskey is the availability of whiskey.”
If you want to make your own Old Fashioned at home, here’s one recipe to try:
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