Drinks #2 and #3: Old Fashioned and Manhattan

I don’t wear aftershave. It’s just another name for perfume, isn’t it? If I splash some on myself, I might as well start wearing eyeliner and waxing my chest. It’s just not something real men do.

I feel the same way about cocktails. Besides a relatively brief dabble in Black and White Russians as an impressionable student in love with The Big Lebowski, the only cocktail I’d ever really had until five weeks ago was a Friar Tuck at the Sherwood Forest Center Parcs. I was six years old.

Cocktails are, without question, for women. Men drink beer instead. During the one year I spent doing physics at high school, I’m pretty sure I was told it was one of the primary laws of the universe. To mess with it could be disastrous. Imagine if men started to spend as much on a single drink as women do. The banks would collapse all over again.

And so, as a real man who didn’t wish to contribute to yet another global economic bust, I stayed away. When I drew up my list of Foods To Try Before I Die last year, I stayed away.

Then I started watching Mad Men and it all went horribly wrong.

There’s no doubting the masculinity of Don Draper. He’s what Gary Cooper would be if he drank too much and had an overactive libido. Women want him, men want to be him. He’s seriously cool and screams testosterone.

And he drinks Old Fashioneds.

Remember before when I mentioned being impressionable? Well, that didn’t stop when I left university. If Don Draper was going to drink Old Fashioneds, then I was going to at least give them a try.

It went on The List.*

The Aubrey Bar at The Kensington Hotel

The Aubrey Bar at The Kensington Hotel

The Kensington Hotel in South Kensington is a very fine place to stay should you ever be down in London. It has a very serious-looking, award-winning cocktail bar called the Aubrey (pictured above) and my wife and I found it a fantastic place to relax during the four days we spent there.

It also seemed to me to be the ideal location to try an Old Fashioned.

Now here’s a lesson for anyone in a good cocktail bar who is after a drink that isn’t on the menu – ask for it anyway. These guys have spent years training to be mixologists and they’ve trained on the classics. Unless you’re after something really obscure, they’ll be able to make it.

There’s also a chance they’ll care a good deal more about the drink they make for you. They do the stuff on the menu all the time – they’re bored of it, they can do it in their sleep. Something off-menu is a challenge for them. It gives them an opportunity to be creative; to test their skills.**

This was precisely the case when I asked for an Old Fashioned. The barman couldn’t have been any more indifferent when I ordered my wife’s Icognito***, but when I ordered my drink he was clearly excited. Which whisky should he use? Which bitters? Should he throw a cherry in? What about lemon peel?

I told him to make the drink as if he were making it for himself. He went with bourbon, I was fine with that. It’s what Don would have wanted.

He waited at our table after bringing it over. He wanted to see me take that first sip, eager to make sure he’d done a good job. I smiled at him. “Very nice,” I said. He smiled back with relief and returned to the bar feeling pleased with himself.

The problem was that the drink didn’t go any further than ‘very nice’. If it’d cost £6, I would’ve been happy. But it was more like £16, so it didn’t quite hit the mark. It wasn’t the barman’s fault – I have no reason to doubt his skill and I’m sure this was an excellent Old Fashioned. The cocktail itself just isn’t particularly impressive.

It tasted like bourbon that had been padded out. Padded out cleverly, yes – it didn’t taste watered down, the whisky taste was still strong. But there was nothing more to it. There was no real depth. The bourbon flavour was there, but gone were the different layers and subtleties that I’m sure would’ve existed before the other ingredients were thrown in.

Surely a whisky-based cocktail shouldn’t leave you wishing you’d just ordered the whisky instead. I needed to be certain. I mentally added another cocktail of this ilk to The List, the Manhattan, and made it my next order.

Now to be honest, I always thought the Manhattan sounded like a superior drink. Ingredients-wise, it looked similar to the Old Fashioned, but just a bit classier; a bit more elaborate.**** Unfortunately, it was far too girly for me. The glass it’s served in is excessively effeminate. Don’t get me started on the mandatory cherry.

And then there’s its name. Gone are the days when Manhattan was synonymous with King Kong and the testing of nuclear weapons. Now it just reminds you of Sex in the City. There’s nothing more girly than that.

But I figured I’d already put one foot over the line, so why not go the whole hog? I was doing a test anyway. Science is manly isn’t it? Of course it is, it involves logic.

(I’m sorry. If it helps, I winced as I wrote it.)

So I ordered my Manhattan and it delivered everything the Old Fashioned didn’t. It had extra gears. Once my tastebuds were done with the whisky flavour, which was still nicely prominent, they had other places to travel to. A whole new dimension to explore that had been added by the vermouth.

It was a joy to drink.

The next day, the global markets fell. The US had lost its AAA credit rating and my cocktail drinking was clearly somewhat responsible. But I didn’t really care.

I had another Manhattan at the Aubrey that night. A few days later, I had a complimentary whisky-based cocktail at The Dorchester, which knocked it into a cocked hat.

The whole week made me realise it was time to set aside my prejudices. As far as this type of drink is concerned, it’s all fair game.

And I’m pretty sure I’m still a real man.

Verdict: I’ll give a solid recommendation for the Manhattan, but the Old Fashioned’s not worth going out of your way for.

NEXT UP: Goose foie gras


*After checking the ingredients, obviously, to ensure it was suitably manly. Whisky? No question – fine. Bitters? Sounds like two pints of beer – fine. Sugar? The foundation of fermentation – fine. All good.

**They also might mistake you for a connoisseur. It’s amazing how much better people will treat you if they think you share their passion and know what you’re talking about.

***The Aubrey’s version of a Mojito.

****Whisky, sweet red vermouth, bitters.


Posted on September 8, 2011, in Foods To Try Before You Die and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Cracking post, your best yet for my money. Question – if you’re still a real man after drinking cocktails, is it time to rethink your stance on aftershave?

  2. No.

    I can get past the girlyness of cocktails because there might be something worthwhile at the end of it – a drink that tastes nice.

    I can’t get passed the girlyness of aftershave because there’s nothing worthwhile at the end of it – I don’t want to smell like a counter at Boots.

  1. Pingback: Drink #1: Dom Pérignon 2000 « Foods To Try Before You Die

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