The Old Fashioned
Bully Boy Distillers – 71.4 Proof
Harry Truman was famous for enjoying a snort of whiskey, but my favorite story about imbibing in his White House is not about him but his wife, Bess. The straightforward First Lady, who according to the staff would “stand no fakers, shirkers, or flatterers,” knew her mind well and wasn’t shy about letting others know it, too. As befits our vision of the mid-century White House, she and Harry often enjoyed a cocktail in the residence sitting room before their evening meal. The first time Bess ordered an old fashioned, head butler Alonzo Fields fixed the drinks in classic style: an ounce of bourbon over orange slices, a teaspoon of sugar, and a dash of bitters. Too sweet, the First Lady pronounced, and the following night Fields tried a new recipe.
The next morning, Bess Truman found Fields’ boss and let fly with the kind of unflattering superlative usually associated with her “Give ‘Em Hell” husband. The drinks had been the worst to ever pass her lips, more like fruit punch than a quality cocktail. Alerted of her displeasure, Fields was ready that night when Bess again ordered an old fashioned. Pouring her a stiff double bourbon on ice, he stood by in case of disapproval. Taking a sip, Mrs. Truman smiled. “Now that’s the way we like our old fashioneds,” she said.
Bully Boy Distillers, owned and operated by two brothers in Boston, has its own historical tale, replete with a family farmhouse cellar stocked throughout Prohibition with illicit local spirits. Committed to following tradition but improving quality, Will and Dave Willis— who named their distillery after a favorite farm workhorse (are farm animal namesakes a rising trend in the liquor business?)—now produce rum, vodka, whiskey, and their bottled old fashioned. The latter, I’m afraid, would likely draw the ire of one Bess Truman, but drinkers who like to taste the difference between neat bourbon and a craft cocktail should give this a try.
Bottled cocktails are a tough sell, primarily because half the fun of having a cocktail is in the tradition and lore of the preparation. This could be doubly true of the old fashioned, which is, by Mr. Fields’ tried and true recipe above, one of the simplest to prepare, particularly when compared to a multi-step, multi-glass drink like the sazerac. There are no rinsed glasses, no one-part-this to three-and-a-half-parts that, no flavored syrup that needs to be prepared ahead of time. But that complexity is what mixologists—particularly the amateur ones—love about cocktails, which could also make the uncomplicated old fashioned the ideal pre-prepared potion. And, if I may, allow me to tout Bully Boy’s ingredients—whiskey, bitters, sugar—as equally uncomplicated in the face of infamous extracts and the “carrot coloring” dustup.
Bully Boy’s old fashioned is made with the distillery’s American Whiskey, an 84 proof spirit, but the cocktail is bottled at 71.4 proof, a significant drop that we can chalk up to simple syrup and flavorings. If you’re used to making old fashioneds with 100 proof rye, you will immediately miss the bite of the base spirit. The orange tones come through in the nose as they should, and are joined by the bitters on the palate and in the mild finish with hints of dried apricot. This is a really sweet and syrupy drink, and while Bully Boy suggests muddling an orange wheel and maraschino cherry in the glass, I found those flavors already prevalent and that an extra dose of bitters suited my taste more. They also recommend serving over an ice cube; I will admit that I enjoyed this without adding anything that melted, chilled but neat. The copper-red color itself is intoxicating.
While I’d like this with a bit more kick, allowing for the whiskey to shine without hiding its subtleties, I’m excited about what the brothers at Bully Boy are doing and what this portends for a quality prepackaged cocktail market. I can see keeping this on hand for when you want an old fashioned but don’t bring home an orange, and particularly serving it as an option at your next get together for guests who would rather drink and mingle than mix and muddle.
Value: High—A suggested retail of around $35 puts this craft in a lower price point than some of its big name competitors, and on par with buying a bottle of whiskey to fix old fashioneds yourself.
Drinkability: High—Sweet and straightforward, this will be attractive to many drinkers who would turn down a neat bourbon.
Overall Rating: 8.2
**Thanks to the folks at Bully Boy Distillers for providing a sample for review**