The sun is ebbing, casting a wash of orange and gold on a city inching towards autumn. There’s that tinge in the air — the crisp, promising whiff of cooler days. Inside, the curtains dance with the gentle wind as the melodious clash of helmets and cheers from the first weekends of football beckon. This isn’t any evening; it’s a bridge between seasons. It deserves an ample companion; a drink that blends seasons, cultures, flavors with the same seamlessness as summer memories fade into autumn anticipation. Tonight, it’s the Oaxaca old fashioned.
Ah, the old fashioned. The name says it all, doesn’t it? It harks back to a time of simplicity, of elegance. Of not making a song and dance about, well, a drink. The original old fashioned was the very emblem of restraint: a rock glass, a sugar cube kissed by bitters, then muddled. A lone lemon peel might be its only companion. The drinker would call their spirit, pour as they pleased, the notches on the bottle’s side marking their indulgence. As is often the case, simplicity is beauty.
But, like so much in our modern world, the old fashioned fell prey to “innovation.” Nowadays, it’s not rare to find it swamped in cherry juice, lost in bacon bits, or worse, subjected to performative wizardry. A bearded, denim-aproned man with ear spacers comes to your table to smoke your drink tableside, like a modern adaptation of bad saganak. A simple, honest drink now imprisoned in a glass dome, filled with smoke for a mere whiff of drama. Your sips met with the silent disapproval of patrons around. For a drink steeped in tradition, this modern theater does more to distract than enhance.
Enter the Oaxaca old fashioned. This is no mere replacement but a beautiful, thoughtful evolution. If the classic old fashioned is that reserved young librarian, its Oaxacan counterpart has a secret OnlyFans.
The twist? Mezcal.
About fifteen years ago, a bar named Death & Co., notorious for pushing the envelope of mixology, housed a genius named Phil Ward. When Ron Cooper’s Del Maguey Mezcal first graced New York (yes, they always get the first bite), Ward saw potential. The mezcal was unlike any agave spirit before, especially in the US. It wasn’t just the first artisan mezcal, but it was also priced for the cocktail crowd. The margarita would hardly suffice as a vehicle for the decidedly more complex tequila variant.
Ward’s innovation was to capture mezcal’s natural smokiness — not through flashy parlor tricks — but by melding it with the old fashioned’s inherent charm. While most were playing with smoke theatrics, Ward’s drink was authentically smoky, every sip brimming with the warmth of a summer evening and the depth of a chilly night.
In essence, the Oaxaca old fashioned captures the beauty of transitions. Just as we move from the swelter of summer to the embrace of fall, this drink brings together the best of two worlds. It’s not overwhelmingly autumnal like a rye old fashioned can be, and yet it’s not quite a beachy tequila shot. It’s perfection balanced on the knife’s edge of two seasons.
Such cocktails stand as a testament to the magic that can happen when we honor tradition while daring to reimagine. By respecting the old fashioned’s roots, Ward created a concoction that wasn’t just novel, but also true to the spirit of the original.
It’s a lesson for all, isn’t it? As our world gets more complicated, as drinks get drowned in drama, there’s beauty in simplicity. There’s merit in letting the ingredients shine, in trusting the drinker to savor the subtleties. We don’t always need a spectacle; sometimes, a comfortable chair, a good game and a drink that tells a story are enough.
So, here we are again. Evening’s settled in, and the faint hum of the city mingles with the Tony Romo’s oracle-like commentating. The glass sweats in hand, the smokiness of the mezcal dances with the gentle spice from the bitters. A touch of sweetness rounds it off… enough to take a bit of the sting off even an Aaron Rodgers torn Achilles. Well, I might need to pour another.
In a world that’s always running, always innovating, it’s essential to find these moments of pause. To remember and to reimagine. The Oaxaca old fashioned isn’t just a drink, it’s a bridge between worlds, times and seasons. A drink to be sipped, savored and remembered.
Cheers to transitions. Cheers to simplicity. Cheers to next season.
From the bartender
2 oz. Rey Campero Espadin Mezcal
3 dashes Bittermens Xocolotl mole bitters
1 barspoon agave nectar
1 thin-slice of orange, flamed and twisted
When I reach for Rey Campero Espadin Mezcal in my cocktail mix, it’s not just on a whim. This mezcal, with its warm smokiness tinged with a playful zest of citrus and fruity notes, feels like a fond memory in a bottle. Mixing it into our old fashioned doesn’t just give it a twist; it’s like adding a personal anecdote to a classic tale, turning a good evening sip into a great conversation starter.
Stir all ingredients together for around fifteen seconds.
Strain over the largest piece of clear ice you can find and garnish with the orange coin. Enjoy!
Spencer Maule is a Bartender with Penny Drip in Fort Wayne, Indiana where coffee and cocktails go hand in hand. He also is a senior partner with Be Better Hospitality, where he launches new cocktail bar concepts.