Issue 29

Libation Conversation: Oaxaca Old Fashioned

Libation Conversation: Oaxaca Old Fashioned

Observant devotees of Food & Spirits magazine may have stumbled across a column of mine a while back that took a closer look at what’s called the Old Fashioned cocktail. In that column I sang the praises of this simple yet fascinatingly complex cocktail made typically from Bourbon (or sometimes Rye) whiskey, bitters, sugar (usually in cube form), a dash of water and muddled orange and cherry. I also made the point that the historically accurate Old Fashioned cocktail is a representative example of the original definition of the word “cocktail” itself. To wit:

“One of the earliest definitions of the word ‘cocktail’ committed to print appears to describe fairly closely the original Old Fashioned. The May 13, 1806 edition of the Hudson, N.Y. periodical, The Balance and Columbian Repository, in response to a reader’s inquiry, defines the cocktail in this way:

“Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters … it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion inasmuch as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time it fuddles the head.”

One of the countless great things about cocktails is that thoughtful experimentation can sometimes be richly rewarded. It’s important to have a healthy respect and pay attention to the classics, those venerable old concoctions whose elegance and sublime balance have stood the test of time. To have an unquenchable desire to embrace and incorporate the flavors of new or newly discovered spirits, elixirs and essences. These pursuits in concert with one another, and with a dash of creativity and adventure thrown in, can yield fascinating results. In the case of the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, the results are exceptional. I discovered this cocktail recently while researching Mezcal and its associated cocktail applications.

“Mezcal” and “cocktail” are two terms that one rarely sees together. A deeper look into the history, production and traditions surrounding mezcal reveals how and why that has come to be the case. Mezcal and tequila share a common heritage, which dates back to the Spanish Conquistadors applying the knowledge of distillation they learned from the Moors to a derivative of the drink of choice of the indigenous Aztecs, “pulque,” the fermented sap of the agave plant. Tequila and mezcal also share a great many similarities in terms of production. In fact, Tequila is a specific form of mezcal, much as Cognac is a specific form of brandy, with its own proprietary rules and restrictions. Mezcals are produced throughout Mexico (the state of Oaxaca is famous for its mezcals) from a number of varieties of the agave plant, whereas tequila is produced from only one variety of agave, the Blue Agave or agave azul tequiliana weber, and is produced almost entirely within the Mexican state of Jalisco.

The production of mezcal differs from that of tequila in a few important ways. Instead of steam baking the cores, or pinas, of the agave plants in clay ovens to derive fermentable sugars, mezcal producers bake the pinas in wood-fired rock-lined earthen pits, allowing the pinas to absorb the flavors from the earth, rock and wood smoke that surrounds them. This creates a distinct, earthy smokiness on the palate that distinguishes mezcal from tequila. Also, many mezcals are single distilled whereas tequilas are double distilled. This tends to give tequila the advantage in the smoothness category. These elements can render mezcal a more challenging element to utilize when creating a cocktail.

However, access to very high-quality, single-village mezcals in the U.S. market has increased in recent years, which has turned the tide in favor of incorporating these spectacular liquids into a variety of cocktails that highlight their rich, intriguing complexity.

Enter the Oaxaca Old Fashioned. Here’s one recipe:

Oaxaca Old Fashioned

¼ – ½ oz agave nectar (to taste)

½ oz Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal

1 ½ oz Jose Cuervo Tradicional 100% Blue Agave Reposado Tequila

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Flamed orange peel (garnish)

Combine all ingredients (except garnish) in a cocktail shaker with ice. Stir for 15 seconds. Strain into ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with the flamed orange peel.

In order to dissect this drink and learn the secret to its magic, let’s look at each of its elements compared to the elements in a traditional Old Fashioned: whiskey, bitters, sugar, water and fruit.

First of all, there are no sugar cubes and no splash of water. How can this “thing” call itself an Old Fashioned without them? The answer lies where nearly all the mysteries in this cocktail can be traced back to, the agave plant. Agave nectar is a natural sweetener and a healthy, lower-carb alternative to cane sugar and can be found in an increasing number of retail outlets and in an increasing number of forms. Raw agave nectar is now available in addition to standard agave nectar and 100 percent blue agave nectar, and is similar in flavor to turbinado sugar, with its increased molasses-like tones. Since this sweetener comes from the same plant as the spirits in the cocktail, there is a certain harmonious flavor balance at its core.

Secondly, no whiskey? Surely this is an indicator of shenanigans afoot! If you consider the elements that contribute to the flavor profile of a bourbon or rye whiskey, certainly the influence of the charred oak barrels necessary for aging these whiskeys would have to be close to the top of the list. Both the tequila and the mezcal elements in this cocktail have seen time in oak, lending a familiar, toasty, vanilla-leaning spiciness to the palate. Not to mention, the pinas used to produce the Mezcal were baked in the aforementioned smoky pits, thereby contributing a hint of smoke reminiscent of a rich, complex whiskey.

Finally, no orange wheel? No cherry? No muddling? What kind of perversion is this? If you happen to be one of those observant devotees I mentioned at the beginning, you’ll recall that there was no “fruit salad” in the original Old Fashioned. Only a decent-sized hunk of lemon peel. I happen to enjoy the addition of orange in some form to an Old Fashioned, so this cocktail serves both masters. You’d be surprised at what a correctly executed flamed orange peel garnish can add to a cocktail. It’s the perfect touch.

Both locations of Stokes Grill & Bar in Omaha (1122 Howard St. and 646 N. 114th St.) are now featuring the Oaxaca Old Fashioned in their newly implemented cocktail programs. I encourage — nay, I implore you — to try one for yourself.

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell, cocktail enthusiast and self-avowed ‘spirits nerd’, is the Luxury Brands Specialist for Sterling Distributing Company in Omaha. He talks incessantly (even occasionally to other people) about the virtues of what he calls ‘investigative imbibement’. An eternally fascinated student of the distillers’ art, he encourages any like-minded individuals to engage him in spirited discussion at http://libationassociation.blogspot.com


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