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In the first episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy speaks with Eric Alperin, co-owner of The Varnish in Los Angeles and killer cocktail maker. The two discuss how to tackle a cocktail with an easy ingredient list that’s easy to mess up: the Old Fashioned. Alperin tells all about how to craft a stellar Old Fashioned. His method involves great rock ice, the perfect dosage of bitters, and specially sized sugar cubes. In fact, Alperin even taught one of Hollywood’s biggest names how to craft an Old Fashioned, which resulted in an iconic cocktail creation film scene.
“Cocktail College” takes a deeper look at some of the classic cocktails we know and love. McKirdy takes us beyond the recipe, talking with America’s best bartenders to get their takes on how to make, and enjoy, the perfect drinks.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Old Fashioned.
MAKE ERIC ALPERIN’S OLD FASHIONED
- 1 Domino Dot sugar cube
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters (8-9 when dispensed from a Japanese bitters bottle)
- 1 bar spoon club soda
- 2 ounces bourbon, such as Elijah Craig
- 1 orange twist
- Place sugar cube in a 9-ounce chilled rocks glass.
- Soak with Angostura bitters and club soda. Muddle to combine.
- Add bourbon and stir three or four times to incorporate all ingredients.
- Add large, clear ice cube (ideally 2.5 x 1.75 x 1 inch).
- Stir seven or eight times to chill.
- Express orange twist over the cocktail and place between ice and glass as garnish.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College,” a weekly deep dive into classic cocktails that goes beyond the recipe with America’s best bartenders. The Old Fashioned might not lay claim to the title of world’s oldest cocktail, but its influence on modern mixology, and its place in popular culture is unquestionable. Put simply, in today’s world, any bartender worth their salt has to have perfected the Old Fashioned. Today, we’re going to learn how to do that with Eric Alperin, best known as the co-owner of The Varnish in L.A., a bar he opened in 2009 with his mentor, the late Sasha Petraske. Beyond ingredients, ratios, and building techniques, we’re going to explore things like the importance of ice, the overlap of theater and mixology, and why this drink, more than any other, is so closely tied to the revival of cocktail culture. We’ll also hear from Eric about how he schooled one of Hollywood’s biggest names on how to make the Old Fashioned, which culminated in what is, perhaps, the best cocktail creation scene in cinematic history. Do you know which one we’re talking about? Buckle up, listener. We’re about to find out. Eric Alperin, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining us.
Eric Alperin: Absolutely, Tim. Thanks for having me on this inaugural journey. I think this is No. 1, right?
T: This is No. 1. I’m looking forward to taking these first steps with you in the audio land.
E: We will bravely go together.
THE HISTORY OF THE OLD FASHIONED
T: I’m going to say, it’s a fairly daunting one out there for you. We’re going to talk about the Old Fashioned today. I think you can say what you want about this cocktail, but this is a very iconic drink and also emblematic of the progress we’ve made during the past 20 years in cocktail culture. So, we’re kicking off with that one. How do you feel about that today?
E: Well, I feel jittery but honored at the same time. What’s so interesting about this is that the Old Fashioned is the definition that was first communicated in the “Balance and Columbian Repository.” Those articles in 1806 in that little Hudson, N.Y., newsletter said that a cocktail was liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters. I started learning about classic cocktails after a few different bar jobs in New York City. I ended up with Sasha at Little Branch, and the Old Fashioned was one of the first I had to learn. It is so simple. Yet, just like a cappuccino, so many people mess it up. You have bitters, sugar, liquor like bourbon or rye, and a garnish. You think that’d be easy enough, but with all the space in between — the process of that — it’s really easy to serve up a train wreck. I’m honored yet confident that I can share with you my version.
T: That’s fantastic. I hope that the listeners will forgive me here, because you’ve really laid out the foundations wonderfully there. The Old Fashioned is the template for the original cocktail. I want to skip a lot of history. I know that a lot of modern mixology is about looking into the past. I do want to look into the past, but I don’t want to go that far back. I think for the purposes of this, I really want to talk about the era when you were starting, because I think that is where the modern Old Fashioned story begins. I’d love to hear about that. I wasn’t personally there in New York or L.A. at that time. So, I’d love to hear what it was actually like. How important was the Old Fashioned then? Is it as important as we see it today, with the hindsight of 20 years or so?
THE OLD FASHIONED’S ROLE IN THE COCKTAIL RENAISSANCE
E: Interestingly enough, the cocktail that first got me into this business was the Cosmopolitan. That’s because my first job was on the bleeding edge of Tribeca at a place called the Screening Room. In that whole area, because of Toby Cecchini and the Odeon, every cocktail list had a Cosmopolitan on it. I was slinging Cosmos for years at this place with sour mix from the gun, a splash of cranberry, and Absolut Citron. It was wonderful and atrocious.
T: What year are we talking about?
E: We’re talking around 1999 to 2002. I was slinging Cosmos like you wouldn’t believe. I worked at the Screening Room, I did a little nightclub bartending, I ended up at Lupa Osteria in New York and started working with amaros and stuff. It wasn’t until I got to Sasha Petraske’s Little Branch where I had my Kool-Aid moment. Some of my early lessons were about how to make and perfect the Old Fashioned. What I’m going to share with you today is not something that I invented or necessarily a process that I came up with on my own. It’s shared through many people that worked through the Milk & Honey family. New York, for me, was definitely a training ground for classic, from the ingredients we were using, the glassware, the specific sugar cubes, Domino Dots sugar cubes. We learned how to peel that orange peel, making sure there wasn’t too much pith on the bottom. We used block ice. It was very process-oriented. Again, that was my training ground in New York City. I moved to L.A. to open up a West Coast version of a Milk & Honey bar. That’s what Sasha and I had agreed to do. The Old Fashioned caught on like wildfire in Los Angeles. It became almost as popular as how the Cosmopolitan was ordered back in its heyday. You’d have men and women and people from all walks of life who were going out and ordering Old Fashioneds. It was just such an easy order to make over a bar. It always makes me laugh because at The Varnish, when we opened, it was one of the most popular drinks that we could track. We sold a lot of Old Fashioneds. It was the same thing at other bars.
T: Why do you think the Old Fashioned was so popular? I mean, I may have an idea. I think this came later, though, so I want to hear your opinion first. Why do you think the Old Fashioned did take off in that way?
E: I think there was so much glee around the idea of classic cocktails. At The Varnish, because of our process and the block ice that we used, people were just really turned on by a big rock of ice in their drink. Also, to be honest, an Old Fashioned doesn’t take that long to make. I think some people just caught on that they could get an Old Fashioned pretty quickly. What is yours? I’m very curious. What is your link?
T: I’ll tell you the one that I hear a lot that’s tied back to mixology. Mixology, I know there’s some derision there with that term and people don’t like it. That term actually dates back to the 19th century. I’ve written an article about this in VinePair before, a while ago. I just want to say, that word might make some people’s skin crawl a little bit hearing that word, but that is just as old as the Old Fashioned, almost.
E: I totally don’t disagree with you, Tim. I didn’t have such disdain as others did, but I think there was a period where it was being used in such a way where we thought, you just sound like an idiot. What are, mixologizing behind the bar? No. I think of it in two ways. I really don’t press this, but bartending is a craft. It’s a trade. It’s an honest trade. When you’re behind the bar, you are tending the bar. So, you are a bartender. Now, if you are on off hours or doing some R&D and trying to come up with different syrups and systems in the bar, I think then, you could think of that as mixology. But to me, when you’re bartending behind the bar, you’re a bartender.
TAKING THE OLD FASHIONED TO THE BIG SCREEN
T: Yeah. My background is in the kitchen and the molecular gastronomy wankers are not for me. Anyway, we do digress a little bit here. So, to bring us back on track. I think the link that gets made a lot is “Mad Men.”
E: Oh, sure.
T: It’s really interesting to me because you talked about the Cosmo. People talk about “Sex and the City,” but the Cosmo was huge before “Sex and the City.” With the Old Fashioned, to your timeline, I don’t think “Mad Men” aired until 2007 or something like that. But, that is the link that always gets made. This is why we’re having this conversation, because I think things get forgotten in time or we put events together that were actually more spread apart. I was interested to hear whether you would make that link.
E: I absolutely would. You’re right, I am in Tinseltown, so I completely agree. It kind of slipped my mind. You’re absolutely right that television and movies can take something and put it on a greater plane. You’re right, the Cosmo was around. People were drinking them. But, as soon as it ended up on “Sex in the City” or somebody saw Madonna drinking it, it took it to another level. In the world I was in, and opening The Varnish, that was a big step in celebrating classics, the Old Fashioned, block ice, and fresh ingredients. All that was super important to The Varnish, but there was also “Mad Men.” “Mad Men” was a big deal. I coached a couple actors, but primarily one actor, for a role in a film.
T: Can I stop you for a second? Before you say this, I think this deserves something of a bigger build up here. I will preface this by saying that I was on YouTube last night. I’m looking at the Old Fashioned that was made in “Mad Men.” It’s not a very good one. He’s using Overholt. That might be a product placement, and I’m sure that was a great drink. If you look back at it, you think, yeah, it was probably a good cocktail, but it wasn’t a brilliant one. Now, the Old Fashioned that you inspired is possibly one of the best cocktails I’ve seen made on the big screen. I think that you were about to go into that without doing it as much just justice as it deserved. Please, do carry on. I just wanted the listeners to know that you were just going to slip that in as if it was a side comment. This is a big deal.
E: Well, OK. Thanks, Tim. I can’t help but be humble in these situations because The Varnish did attract people from all walks of life. It also attracted a lot of Hollywood types. I’m really glad that, in this particular movie, it was well shot and well executed. I really have to give credit to the actor, who was a friend at the time. He would come to my bar with his pals and he asked me if I would help train him on two cocktails, because he had this movie coming up where he wanted to improv a scene where he’s making a cocktail for another actress. This was his acting idea. Coming from an acting background, I was like, “Dude, that’s so cool.” This guy is none other than Ryan Gosling. He used to live downtown, so he spent a lot of time in The Varnish haunt. It was pretty cool. The scene was all self-generated. It wasn’t in the script, from what I understand. He just wanted to learn how to make two cocktails. I taught him how to make an Old Fashioned and a Honeysuckle, which is a honey Daiquiri, because he was a fan of both of those cocktails. Here’s the thing. We did spend so much time on process. Not to get nerdy about being an actor, but he was so method about it. He just came in, and we did some stuff off-hours, and then a little bit during service when it was light, he would jump back there. He became friends with so much of the staff. He would either be watching the bartenders work or, when there was a moment, he would come back there, and he would make it himself. He just repeated it over and over and over again. We had a couple of sessions at his house where he had some of us over, and he would make drinks for everyone. I think the reason why it landed so well on the screen is because he was just a student. That was the experience with Ryan and the movie, which was “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” It was really special.
T: Go check it out. The scene is on YouTube. It’s a wonderful scene. If you haven’t seen the movie, I definitely recommend it to everyone.
E: It’s a sexy scene.
T: It’s really well shot. You mentioned that he was a friend. This is a slight detour here. I’ve read your book and I would urge people to go out there and read your book as well. I think it’s a really great approach and a different way of writing about drinks.
E: Oh, thanks, man.
T: I genuinely enjoyed it. I learned about your experience as an actor kind of, and I think you mentioned your time working with Sasha Petroskey. Acting came into the art of bartending and the way you set yourself up. So, it’s exactly the same thing that Ryan Gosling might have done, studying you guys. You guys were there every night. That’s your scene. That feels like that is part of the way that you approach your craft.
E: One hundred percent. I do come from a theater background. That’s what I went to college for. I believe that every night at the bar is live theater. The book is “Unvarnished.” Hospitality, bars, and restaurants are theaters. That has always been a North Star for me. It’s been a driving force. I do appreciate it, but I’m not a cocktail historian. I’m not nerding out. I’m a nerd in many ways, but I’m not a history nerd. I’m not about finding out how many variations there are on a particular recipe or a particular cocktail, how many recipe variations there are. It’s represented in the book, because there are these 115 cocktails every bartender must know before they start their first solo shift behind the bar. I am much more of a process, movement, how we care for our guests, how we execute drinks, kind of nerd. So much of that is rooted in my theater education. I’m glad you brought that up. All these details, to me, are very much rooted in theater.
T: I think it’s important with this drink in particular. The Old Fashioned has only a few ingredients, which means there’s little room to hide. You need to know how to make this drink. I think that’s why it also worked so well in that scene and also really took off in the early 2000s, as we’ve spoken about. To watch someone make that, if you’ve never had a proper cocktail made for you before, and to see those small actions carried out very intentionally, is related. I think that’s why it’s important that we’re speaking about these things, too, because let’s now dive into those components, but those external factors are all in the final drink, aren’t they? In the experience?
HOW TO MAKE THE PERFECT OLD FASHIONED
E: Yeah, absolutely. I think consistency is so important in cocktails. I’ve always asked young bartenders who are trying to come up with the next modern classic, “Hey, guys, can you make 115 classic cocktails in “Unvarnished” 1,000 times over?” Through that process, there is so much attention to detail and creative moments to be had. It’s all the space in between these simple steps that are strung together. You can read a recipe. You’d be able to get all the ingredients you need. I think the narrative does intersperse into a lot of the “Unvarnished” stories, because it has memoir moments. It has moments about the ins and outs of being in the bar, the industry, and building bars. I think, though, with just a recipe, we miss so much of the breath and the space in between. Like, when you throw a sugar cube into that 9-ounce glass. Now, I’m going to walk you through the recipe for our Old Fashioned at The Varnish. You’ve got a 9-ounce glass. Nine ounces. That’s really important to us. Sure, you can use a larger glass if that’s all you have at home. For us, it’s about what will fit our particular rocks of ice. We have block ice and it’s 2.5 inches tall by a 1.75 inches width, and 1 inch wide and deep. We choose the glass specifically. Then, what is the sugar cube that we’re dropping in there? We’re dropping in a Domino Dot sugar cubes. Sasha was such an advocate of the right amount of sugar in an Old Fashioned. We always did it with sugar cubes. The way Domino Dot cuts the sugar loaf is smaller than what they do with a C&H sugar cube.
E: Now, I like Domino Dot and the amount of sugar in that particular cut of the sugar loaf compared to the C&H. So, I agree with Sasha and that’s what we do in house. Other places don’t. They use the C&H, and they’re a bit bigger. But, those details really matter. You throw in that sugar cube and hit it with Angostura bitters. We use a Japanese bitters bottle, because when you look at recipes, a lot of the time it doesn’t talk about how bitters come out of a traditional bitters bottle. It’s the same thing with knives in the kitchen, man. There’s a certain knife to cut fish. Otherwise you’re going to hack the meat up, right? The way you slice, the angle, whether you’re going long ways or short ways on the meat? It’s all so important. So, for us, Angostura bitters live in a Japanese bitters bottle. The way that Japanese bitters bottles are shaped is bulbous at the bottom and then it has this piston that the bitters fly through. They then go through this particular dasher. When you shoot out three dashes from a Japanese bitters bottle, that is one dash. Three dashes from a Japanese bitters bottle is one dash, if you can get it correctly, from an Angostura bottle. The thing about Angostura bottles is that, when it’s full and you do a dash, it’s too full. You didn’t get the right dash. Then, there’s a point in the bitters bottle where there’s enough air and enough liquid where you get the right dash. But, it can be really hazardous. If you don’t have enough bitters in the bottle and do a dash, then turn the bottle over, all of a sudden it creates too much force and you put too much bitters into the bottom of your glass. So, that’s why we use the Japanese bitters bottles for consistency in the dashing.
T: Three dashes on the Japanese is one traditional. What do you go for in your recipe?
E: We go for about eight. Eight to nine. That would be about a good, healthy 2.5 dashes. From there — I know this is an off-with-my-head moment — we were taught to do a bar spoon of club soda or seltzer. I use the disc bar spoon, that has disc at the bottom and twirls on the stem.
T: What’s that for?
E: Well, this is what I use it for. You can muddle with that disc. It’s perfect for making an Old Fashioned. I also think it’s for layering on top of drinks. But, for the Old Fashioned, you do a bar spoon of the seltzer or club soda. Of course, when you’re putting that onto the bar spoon, you always want to work away from the glass. So, if you screw it up or some spills over, it spills on the counter or in the well as opposed to into the drink. You get that bar spoon of club soda in there, then you flip over that spoon, and you use the disc to muddle the bitters, Domino Dot sugar cube, and the club soda into a paste. You don’t need to have a really big bar spoon of club soda, just enough to create a paste. I think that’s a really important part of the Old Fashioned. You get that into a paste. You don’t need to use a muddler. I think it’s so much more elegant to use the disced bar spoon.
T: To spin it around. Also, it’s one less step. We’re talking about these intentional actions. One less thing to clean. One less thing to pick up.
E: Exactly. Economy of movement. One less thing to clean. One less thing to pick up. You actually look pretty baller. I call that stuff micro-flair. It’s like, whoa, he just flipped it over and now he’s muddling. I’m a big fan of Nicolas Saint-Jean, the flair bartender. I find that to be so cool. I don’t think we’re getting great Old Fashioneds from that performance. But, still. I call a lot of the little stuff we do “micro-flair.” So, you muddle. Then, I usually put that disc bar spoon there on the side, off the rim of the glass, and then proceed to add my 2 ounces of bourbon. Traditionally, we use bourbon for our house Old Fashioned at The Varnish. There’s always a little bit of the paste that’s left on the bottom of the disc. I’ll put that in first, make sure to get that all off.
T: So you’re pouring that over there, again. These are the tips.
E: Yeah. Pouring it over again and making sure that the disc got hit with the booze, so that any remaining paste is back in the drink. I’ll stir that up without ice around three or four turns, just to agitate it and get it together. Then, we move on to our block ice. I know a lot of people are playing with freezing ice in their freezers, using silicone molds. That’s great. Sometimes, people are fortunate enough to live in a city that has an ice company. I have one in Los Angeles called Penny Pound Ice. We have a retail store that you can pick up block ice from. The important thing about this stuff is to make sure you’ve taken the block ice out of the freezer and let it come to temp. Then, you gently place it into the glass, using the same bar spoon. You want to put the same disc bar spoon, now with the spoon side to the end of the glass, like halfway on the glass. Place it so the stem is going across the top of the glass. You put the ice on there, and then you gently layer the ice in. It’s almost like you’re using a lever to get the ice in there so it doesn’t splash up. The reason you temp the ice is so that — when it goes into this room temperature solution of bourbon, bitters, sugar, and a touch of club soda — it doesn’t shatter. It’s much prettier if you have a rock of ice that hasn’t shattered.
T: There’s so much time spent in the preparation process to even get this thing completely clear. You don’t want it to immediately shatter or crack down the middle.
E: Tim, you just sounded like a chef. That’s the “respect your ingredients” approach. There is a whole lineage to when you, for example, pop open that oyster. It didn’t just show up here. There’s a family that’s harvesting oysters. They had to pick them, bag them, and get them sent to you. I love thinking about that in every ingredient I’m using. There’s so many hands that are part of the process to get it to you, to this moment. We’re not done with a drink yet, but we’re almost done. It’s for 15 seconds of customer contact, serving. There’s this whole lineage of time and people involved in each of those ingredients. At this point, we’ve got a really solid process, a great team, and an awesome factory. Some weeks we’re doing 80,000 individual units of ice.
T: Geez. This is another great part of “Unvarnished.” This is a part that I love because it reminds me of my chef days, the process, and how long that takes. Again, plugging the book here.
E: The “Cold As Ice” chapter? That was a lot of fun to write, but it was stressful because I’m not a food scientist. I understand using the ice, but my scientific knowledge was just a little more than basic. It’s a little nerve-racking when it comes to recipes and processes. When it came to recipes and process in ice, the story stuff I loved. That was its own challenge. But, when you’re going to put it into print — “this is how you do it and this is what it means” — it’s kind of stressful. You know it yourself, because you do it. But then there’s this feeling of, “Somebody’s going to stick it to me if I don’t get this right.” So, yeah. You want to make sure the ice is tempered, laid in the drink so it doesn’t splash any of the liquid up. Then, we do about seven or eight stirs. I usually go clockwise, right at the end there. I usually like to do a little lift. There’s that block of ice in there, so you get the spoon down to the bottom and do a little lift to lift the ice up and gently place it back down. Do that once or twice. Right at the end, I pull a little bit of the Old Fashioned liquid over the top of the ice, just to make it wet. Now, you’re on your garnishing part. In our house, that’s done with the bourbon Old Fashioned orange peel. I know that some houses will do rabbit ears of a lemon and an orange peel. I actually, historically, don’t know what the rule is. If we do a rye Old Fashioned at The Varnish, we’ll do rabbit ears, lemon, and orange peel. For me, I love to use a yolke peeler. It’s just the way my hands work. I don’t like the straight ones. In this industry, you’re always going to cut yourself on the peeler. My relationship with the straight peelers has never been good. I have so much more control over the yolke peeler. Control is important with the twist or peel, because you don’t want to get too much pith on the bottom of that peel. It can be challenging, because sometimes you don’t get the best oranges or the firmest oranges. When they’re not firm, they’re a little lazy, so you end up cutting into a lot of the pith. It’s in the book, but there’s such a great moment with Sasha that I always remember. He said, you want it to look like the bottom of a Band-Aid. I don’t know if that makes sense to anybody listening. If you get a peel just right, there’ll be some pith, obviously, but enough where there’s all these little dots from the peel, kind of the pores of the orange peel. You can see those pores through the little bit of pith, and it kind of looks like a Band-Aid.
T: If you’ll allow me to jump into chef mode again, that’s the beauty of an orange. If you get some horribly, sickly sweet orange juice, what you’re not getting in that orange juice is citrus oil. It’s the bitterness from the pith. You want those things because that’s what the whole orange is, right? It’s not just the sweet juice. I was thinking about that when you were describing it. So, I wanted to add that.
E: I love that. I think it’s so great that you come from a chef background, because these conversations, as they go on in future episodes, will be so much more dynamic. I think there’s a symbiosis between bartenders and chefs.
T: 100 percent.
E: One, for the simple fact of what Anthony Bourdain wrote, that the chef always wanted alcohol. So, you know, us bartenders always want food.
T: Bartenders always want better food than the family meal. I mean, who doesn’t?
E: Who doesn’t? We were “legal drug dealers” with all those bottles behind us. Yeah. It’s super, super important. It starts with making sure you have an orange that has the right firmness to it and getting a good relationship with the peeler. I like doing a long peel. A lot of people think of it like a feather. You express it over the top of the drink and rub the rim, which I do. I know there’s a lot of schools of thought that say you just need a little bit of oil, and that’s plenty. You just take that peel, twist it up a little bit, and then put it into the drink in between the side of the glass and the block of ice. Make it stand up like a long feather. The garnish is like the makeup on a beautiful woman. Some Italian bartender once told me that. I was like, that’s a really beautiful way to think about it. We drink with our eyes, so let’s not be lazy with our garnishes.
T: And when you’re expressing, are we talking inside the glass or outside the glass? Or, expressing over it, but when you’re rubbing on the glass?
E: Rubbing on the glass, just a little bit on the rim. Nothing crazy. I don’t go around and around and around by any means. Just a little dash on one side and the other, then I twist it up and put it in the side. It’s not excessive. I’m not rubbing this peel to death into the rim of the glass. Just a nice little touch, almost like how women put a little bit of perfume on each side of their neck. That’s how I think about putting a little bit of oil on each side of the glass.
T: I feel like Ryan Gosling right now. Just sitting here, taking it in.
E: Take it in, repeat, repeat, repeat. Truly, just to echo, that was the coolest part about that experience. Sure, it’s Ryan Gosling. It’s a Hollywood movie. But, I think the lesson to really take here is that he cared so much about executing it the right way, that he studied. He studied and he watched and he executed. He’d make little mistakes. We would correct him. It wasn’t just me. That’s the coolest part. The whole staff would give him little pointers here and there. We’re only talking about two cocktails, you know?
T: And it’s not a long scene as well.
E: No, it’s not a long scene. But, I really appreciated the time and attention he took for that. It just shows you that anybody that wants to make drinks needs to apply and put in that time.
THE BEST WHISKEY FOR THE OLD FASHIONED
T: That whole thing with the iceberg, the tip, and what’s below the sea and whatever. Anyway, we’re getting into motivational media rubbish here. I’m going to put my spirits and cocktail writer’s hat on for a minute here and ask you one follow-up question. This may be a preference thing, or this may be a technical thing that you’ve clearly thought about. You mentioned your standard go-to here is going to be bourbon. Feel free to list a brand or not. I think this is something that’s more modern, too, but when it comes to mash bill, what are you thinking about? Do you prefer a wheated? A high rye or anything else? Or, is it more, like, this is the bourbon that I use and I like it because it turns out this way,
E: I’m so open. Doing a rye Rittenhouse Old Fashioned can be a lot of fun. But, that’s a spicy meatball. When I really started getting into the nitty gritty of the process with Sasha and Milk & Honey over at Little Branch, we were using Elijah Craig bourbon. I actually, off hand, don’t know the exact mash bill on that. But, I’ve always been such a fan.
T: I believe that’s higher rye, but I’ve probably got that completely wrong. It’s definitely not a wheated bourbon. I might be wrong. If I am, please send hate mail to [email protected].
E: I won’t hold that against you. There’s always the internet for that. Elijah Craig is lovely, it’s beautiful, it’s affordable. It’s a great thing to have. It’s definitely a thing in bars that we need to be cost-conscious. We don’t want to be charging people through the nose for drinks, but there’s a lot that goes into making drinks. I’m a big fan of, and we’re using it a lot, Evan Williams Bonded. We did a head-to-head with Elijah Craig. We did a blind taste test. On a couple particular occasions, it was really a flop between Elijah Craig and Evan Williams Bonded.
T: You know those are the same mash bills.
E: There you go.
T: I think it’s just the proof there.
E: I think it was just the proof.
T: Just the proof. It changes for so many things, but with bonded, I find that 100 proof is really the sweet spot for me. That is the beauty of bourbon, where we are, and where we’ve come in this time since the early aughts, as we call them in the U.K. I’m not sure if that’s common here. But, since the early aughts, people care about these things now. The information is out there. It’s not always 100 percent confirmed, but there’s people that care so much about bourbon, you can look it up and find the one that works for you. Here’s the thing, too. Mash bills are only one thing. You’ve got your yeast, barrels, aging environment. Who knows exactly what it is? But, I think bourbon is in a very good place right now.
E: It’s like that lineage thing. There’s so many hands, people, and expertise that go into whiskey now — even more so than before. There’s so much attention on it. I have to say that I do agree with the higher proof, because an Old Fashioned, to me, is like a cigar. Right when you get it, it’s not in the zone completely. It needs a little time to get in there.
T: Once you hit that stride, my God.
E: It’s that relationship. That’s the thing. There’s a relationship with drinks. I think you and I probably drink our Old Fashioneds a little faster than, maybe, most people. Having the higher proof does allow that block ice to melt just a little bit faster and get into the pocket, as I’ll say, for premium enjoyment.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE OLD FASHIONED
T: What else about this drink? I think that’s been an incredible rundown of the way that you approach it. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I feel like you’re of the camp that, this is the way that I approach it, people can have their own way. What’s more important is maybe why you’re thinking about each thing, right?
E: I’m a creature of habit. I love the process. I love consistency. I am kind of an old dullard or an old soul when it comes to how I build out the bar, how I do the mise en place, and the recipes that I’ve come to know and love. This is just what I do in my house. I’ve had numerous other Old Fashioneds, and they’re usually really good when you can see and sense real attention to process and detail. You’ve been to a bar where it feels like, “Man, this is sloppy.” It’s going to end up in the drink. There’s no two ways about it. Form and function do have a huge effect on results.
T: I could probably bring this up in any one of the episodes, but we’ve been talking a lot about food. I think this will appeal to you, so I want to share something, again from cooking. Here’s the context for it. I told you I was watching a lot of people make very bad Old Fashioneds on YouTube last night. One of the things that made me immediately go, oh, my God, that drink is going to taste terrible, was not even just looking at it, but hearing the ice in the glass with a liquid. I’m like, “No, that ice is already too melted.” Right? That’s going to be a very diluted drink. You can hear it. You don’t even need to look at it. It reminded me of the importance of sound and hearing in the kitchen. People never talk about that.
E: Oh my God. I love that you’re bringing this up, because it is. We all have a Spidey sense. There’s a sixth sense. I can walk into The Varnish and tell you the three things that might not be right — the lights, the music, the temperature. If somebody is shaking and their rock of ice exploded before the drink was actually fully shaken, it is sound. So much of it is sound. I hate when bartenders slam their tins at the top with another tin. Like, why are you doing that? Just use the palm of your hand. Sound is very important.
T: It’s so true. It tells you a lot about the bartender. I think that the more you sit at a bar, you pick these things up, too. You can learn the personality of your bartender. Does this guy care about the drink or does he care about what he looks like? Have we moved beyond micro-flair? It needs to be intentional.
E: For sure. Don’t shake pretty. Shake hard. Especially when young bartenders are learning how to use block ice, you need to be careful because you can hurt yourself if you don’t do it correctly. This is not a symposium on how to shake properly, but if you’re using block ice, you want the piston to be in the center of your body, so you have the most support. Bring your shoulder blades down, engage, and use your abs. That has a lot of intention. You can see it if a bartender is trying to be like, “Hey, look at me.” That gets really old really fast in my book. What’s really interesting is watching a bartender who is really in the zone and really paying attention to all the steps. What’s even more wild is, if you go to a certain bar a lot, you’ll watch a particular bartender realize he’s getting slaughtered tonight. That’s always really interesting for me to watch. That bartender could walk out. They could give away free beers and shots and say, “I’m not making drinks anymore.” Or, they can buckle down and figure out how to get out of the weeds. You can really see some real, organic behavior from those situations. Sometimes, somebody will just pop some ice in your glass, and you realize that’s really wet ice. That’s not going to make a good drink.
T: If they’re making the drink for me, then I’ve got my head in my hands. I’m like, “Oh my God.”
E: We know the bars and the moments where we should just order whiskey neat.
T: I think that’s up there with the best advice you’ve given out today.
E: I mean, I’ve got some more for you.
GETTING TO KNOW ERIC ALPERIN
T: Well, that’s actually a wonderful segue onto the final portion of this. This is going to be a recurring final portion of the podcast. We’ve gotten to learn a lot about the Old Fashioned with you. We’ve gotten to know a good amount about you, too. But, that might not always be the case when we’re interviewing folks for this. I think there’s definitely some more drinks out there that require more nerding out, as you say, in terms of ingredients or specs or whatnot. The last segment of the show is really to learn a little bit more about Eric Alperin, assuming “Unvarnished” didn’t exist. I’ve got some quick-fire questions to finish the show. I will say this again, and I kind of want to say it every time. This is inspired by a wonderful British radio show called “Desert Island Discs.” Listen to it. It’s incredible.
E: Oh, my God, I love this. “Desert Island Discs” is one of my favorites. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve laughed and cried listening to some of these. The one thing I’m going to say is that the first “Desert Island Discs” I listened to was Stephen Hawking. It was soul crushing, beautiful, mind blowing. It was heartbreaking, but amazing. So, yes. I’m so glad you were inspired by such a legacy of the show.
T: A couple of questions to get to know you. The first is, what would be the first bottle — whether it’s a brand or general category — that makes it onto one of your bar programs?
E: I’ve got three in my mind right now. I’m going to say Fords Gin, Evan Williams Bond, and Campari. Shit, maybe I should throw sweet vermouth in there so we can at least make a couple more cocktails.
T: I think with that, you’re pretty well set. Which ingredient or tool do you believe is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
E: It’s interesting. As bartenders, we have these graded jiggers now that have from half an ounce all the way up to 2.5 ounces. It’s funny. I will keep a graded jigger in my dopp kit. It’ll be like: toothpaste, toothbrush, clippers, razor, jigger? What? It’s also important for me to have a half ounce, .75 ounce jigger for those small measurements. You don’t want to mess those up, especially with certain modifiers.
T: Third question. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in this industry?
E: When building a bar, you’re going to work with people or vendors, that will only be two of these three qualities. They are: good, cheap, and fast. You’re only going to get two of those.
T: Hope that it’s good and fast.
E: Yeah. Or, good and cheap doesn’t hurt.
T: Good and cheap. All three of them are positive. Sorry. Of course. I’m sorry. I’m sitting here thinking , which is the odd one out? No, of course they’re all good.
E: You’ll never get all three.
T: Fair enough. Fourth question for you. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
E: It would be Dutch Kills in Long Island City.
T: I’m about one mile down the road from it and happen to know that they also care a hell of a lot about their ice, too.
E: They sure do. I love that place. I love the owner, too. Dear friend of mine.
T: And last question for you today, Eric. If you knew the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
E: I’ve been asked a version of this question before. We all ask this of each other, what’s your desert island cocktail? What’s the last thing you’d want to have? It changes. It depends on the hour of the day or how I’m feeling. Today, I’m going to have to say that I’m at Dutch Kills, and I’m going to have Richard Boccato make me an American Trilogy. For those of you that are listening, if you don’t know, it’s a cocktail that Richard and Michael McIlroy came up with when they were at Milk & Honey. It’s an ounce of rye, an ounce of applejack brandy, one brown sugar cube, two dashes of orange bitters, a bar spoon of club soda, with an orange twist. So it’s very much an Old Fashioned variation.
T: And Eric, before we finish, because you have heard of “Desert Island Discs,” I’m going to allow you to also choose the record that you’re listening to at Dutch Kills while you’re enjoying this drink.
E: Oh my God. It’s “Violator” by Depeche Mode. That would be my “Desert Island Disc.” Really the whole album, with my desert island cocktail. Obviously, “Personal Jesus” is only one of many awesome songs on that album.
T: Well, Eric. Thank you so much. It’s been a wonderful conversation. A great way, I think, to kick things off. Thank you so much for taking the time.
E: Absolutely, Tim. I really appreciate you having me as the first guest. Here’s to clinking to many more episodes. Thanks, Tim.
T: Thank you.
If you enjoy listening to the show anywhere near as much as we enjoy making it, go ahead and hit subscribe, and please leave a rating or review wherever you get your podcasts — whether that’s Apple, Spotify, or Stitcher. And please tell your friends.
Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.