Yeah, it was Don Draper who convinced me to make the Old Fashioned my drink of choice—I admit it. Bourbon or rye, bitters, a sweetener and the essence of lemon or orange: so simple, so smooth, so tasty and so very cool.
Nowadays, there's nothing that sounds better when I first belly up to the bar or sit down at a restaurant table. That is, if I'm someplace I trust to do it right. I'm getting better at knowing right away if a joint knows how to make it the way I like it. If it's made badly, I can often tell by the color: too red from the abominable muddled maraschino cherry. It must be that beautiful amber-gold.
Bartender Nick Meyers at Alchemy in South Park (1503 30th St.) does it well: Jim Beam bourbon or rye, a half-ounce of simple syrup instead of a sugar cube, three dashes of Angostura bitters and a pressed orange chip, garnished with a Luxardo cherry. Meyers' Old Fashioned quickly became my favorite in town, although I certainly haven't sampled them all (I haven't gotten around to Noble Experiment's version, for example).
For this story, I needed a challenger. The Old Fashioned at URBN in North Park is very good. I've also had decent versions at Seven Grand (using brown sugar—interesting), Brooklyn Girl, Sycamore Den, the new Cat Eye Club and Tom Ham's Lighthouse (albeit following my own recipe). But I found my most formidable combatant at Polite Provisions (4696 30th St. in North Park).
Look, if an Old Fashioned is done well, it's hard to say it's significantly better than another Old Fashioned done well. So, why Polite Provisions? Maybe it was the single huge cube of ice that seems so sophisticated to me. Maybe it was the fact that mixologist Vanh Kittikoune genuinely appeared to enjoy chatting about the cocktail so much, talking about the way it was crafted in the 19th century with gomme syrup (gomme Arabic, pure cane sugar).
Kittikoune's cocktail is Wild Turkey 101 rye, a quarter-ounce of the gomme syrup, two large dashes of Angostura and orange zest—or Buffalo Trace bourbon and lemon zest, if bourbon's requested. (Incidentally, last Saturday, Kittikoune was riding his bike on Upas Street when he was struck by a car, and the accident left him with a broken collarbone. Polite Provisions will hold a fundraiser on Tuesday, Oct. 29, with half the bar's take helping to pay his medical bills. Head over and order an Old Fashioned in his honor.)
The winner: Polite Provisions' Old Fashioned is fantastic, and if this were a horse race, it would be a photo finish. But I'm going with Alchemy for now. Partially, it's because Meyers was my main man first and his cocktail has been consistently good, and partially because I prefer Alchemy's ambiance over PP, which sort of feels like an adult Farrell's ice-cream parlor. And, once the cocktail stimulates my appetite, I can order food at my table rather than schlep next door like I'd have to at PP and its sister eatery, Soda & Swine. But I'll be back at Polite Provisions, probably as soon as Oct. 29.