With the exception of a good margarita, I've never been one for mixed drinks. Which doesn't mean I don't like a great cocktail.
I just tend to be very selective about the cocktails I love. And the ones I love tend to be simple and made mostly from brown liquors, such as bourbon and rye. The reason is simple. I don't like lots of mixtures of unidentifiable alcohols. Not only are they usually overly sweet, but they are a headache — literally!
And I recently learned just how important each element is to making a terrific simple cocktail. Because when you're working with just a few ingredients, everything — even the ice — matters.
I learned this when I visited Mike Hudman, Andy Ticer and Nick Talarico at Hog & Hominy in Memphis, Tenn. I loved Hog & Hominy before I ever walked through the front door just because of the name, which is an old moniker for the state of Tennessee, as in the "Hog & Hominy" state.
Everything they do in their fused together American Southern and Italian restaurant, they do with care. But the real reason to visit Hog & Hominy is their artisanal cocktail bar, where handcrafted "ice balls" are put to very good use. Under the guise of ordering a drink to try one of their signature BIG ice balls, I asked them to make me whatever cocktail they thought I would like.
Take about attention to detail... The ice balls are made from triple-distilled water and hand-carved by a local ice carver. They are perfectly clear like those sculptures you see in hotel ballrooms.
The balls are about 2 inches in diameter and they literally fill the whole glass. They are priced a la cart for $3.00 each. But before you gasp in shock, I must tell you that the ball will last all night and hardly melts, thus preventing that awful dilution that cocktail lovers dread.
Talarico set down a beautiful drink of brown "water" and a great waft of fresh orange oil greeted me before I took my first sip. It was their version of an old fashioned and there was nothing typically "old fashioned" about it. I fell in love with it immediately. In fact, our whole table did, including several whiskey haters.
Needless to say, after the second drink, we were unified in our love for Talarico's old fashioned. So much so, that I had to learn to make it!
The crew at Hog & Hominy are purists and set out to uncover the original recipe for an old fashioned before it got bogged down in sweet fruits and watered down with way too much club soda. They went all the way back to a couple of old bartender books, including one from 1887.
What makes this old fashioned so much better for me is that the cherries and their sticky sweet pink syrup are gone. The sweet notes are natural and perfect for the holidays — orange and vanilla and spice. A big strip of orange zest is twisted to release the oils and rubbed all over the inside of the glass, creating the bold citrus aroma. It is removed and then placed in the glass as a garnish once the drink is made.
Great bourbons are rich with notes of vanilla and spice, and those are essential for this recipe. And two kinds of bitters are essential here — orange bitters to balance out the sweet orange oil, as well as the classic unmistakable flavor of Angostora bitters.
And of course you'll want a large ice ball. Plenty of companies sell trays to make large cubes, so start there. And in a pinch, regular ice is fine.
NICK's OLD FASHIONED
To make the orange twist, use a vegetable peeler or paring knife and slice a long strip of zest off a clean orange. Make sure not to include the bitter white pith.
Start to finish: 10 minutes
2- to 3-inch strip of orange zest
1 demerara sugar cube (or 1 teaspoon raw sugar)
3 drops orange bitters
1 drop Angostura bitters
1 tablespoon club soda
2 ounces bourbon (or rye)
1 big or 4 normal ice cubs
Twist the orange zest to help release its oils, then rub it along the inside of a tumbler, as well as along the rim. Reserve the zest.
Place the sugar in the bottom of the tumbler. Add both bitters directly to the sugar. Pour the club soda over the sugar to help to dissolve the sugar crystals. Muddle until melted. Add the bourbon and mix. When the mixture is smooth, add the ice. Slide the reserved orange twist into the side of the glass so it sits between the ice and glass. Serve immediately.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."