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Back to Basics: Make Cocktails Normal Again

What to drink to get you through election night—or, heck, the whole day.
November 3, 2020
Back to Basics: Make Cocktails Normal Again

Members of Bulwark+ can spend election night with the Bulwark team. All your favorite Bulwarkers will be there: Charlie Sykes, JVL, Mona Charen, Amanda Carpenter, and Sarah Longwell will be holding court throughout the night. (Tim Miller, too, I guess.) And if you’re anything like us, you’ll need a drink or three to get you through the evening—it’s going to be a long one. So I’ve put together a little cocktail menu that you can make at home without too much effort. Sign up now to get access to this evening’s livestream, and you may even get to see me make one or two of these drinks live on Zoom.

Look, bartenders love making crazy drinks for you to try. God willing, one day we’ll all be able to head back to the speakeasies and you can drink thyme-infused lillet blanc poured over strawberry ice cubes or whatever, and that’ll be grand. But I’m seeking a return to normalcy. A chill way to enjoy some chilled beverages.

Let’s get back to basics, people.

First up: the Old Fashioned. The Old Fashioned is the greatest cocktail in the world and 84.5 percent of the restaurants you order it in will fuck it up. They’ll put a whole slice of orange and a maraschino cherry in there and pour sugar in and smash it up with a pestle before—and this is the crime, the thing bartenders should be sent to literal prison for—splashing club soda on top of it and pouring in two ounces of 80-proof bourbon and loading the thing up with ice. The result is a watery, sugary, slop.

Here’s what you need to make a proper old fashioned:

2 oz. high-proof bourbon
1 tsp. simple syrup
Angostura bitters
Lemon peel
Orange peel

It starts, as all great things do, with a bottle of bourbon. Find whichever bottle in your collection is emptiest, and pour it into a glass.

Start drinking.

Next, get a sauce pan. Add one cup of sugar and one cup of water. Bring to a boil and let it churn for five minutes. Remove from heat. Once it cools, pour the mixture into the now-empty bourbon bottle via a funnel.

Congrats: You’ve made simple syrup! It’ll keep for a couple of months.

Now, what you’re going to want to do is find a high-proof, cheap bourbon: I like Old Grand-Dad 114, which’ll generally run you between $20 and $25, and comes with a kick. Fill your two-ounce jigger with the Old Grand-Dad and pour it into a glass. Next, add a teaspoon of your simple syrup and Angostura bitters to taste. (I like my cocktail a bit spicier, so I give it four or five shakes; most will prefer two dashes.)

Now here’s the tricky part: Slice off a bit of orange peel and a bit of lemon peel, avoiding as much of the white pith beneath as possible. (You should maybe do this part before you start drinking; I shan’t be held responsible for self-inflicted knife wounds.) Once you have your pithless peel, twist it to release the essential oils into your mixture, then drop the peel in. Stir. Add either a couple small pieces of ice or, if you have the mold, one Death Star Ice Sphere.


Because most bartenders will screw up your Old Fashioned, I took to ordering Manhattans at bars. And then I took to making them at home. What a delightful, easy drink. I’m a little pickier with my ingredients for this one, but I assure you if you use exactly what I lay out here you’ll be happy with your drink.

2 oz. High West Double Rye
1 oz. Dolin Sweet Vermouth
3-5 dashes Angostura bitters
A couple drops of maraschino cherry juice
1 maraschino cherry

Really easy, you can’t blow this one, folks. Just get a cocktail shaker and load it up with ice. Then add two ounces of High West Double Rye and one ounce of Dolin Sweet Vermouth. Add bitters to taste, and then, if you have a jar of maraschino cherries, add just a drop or two of the juice. If you want to get blitzed, you can double the rye and vermouth, but I do not recommend drinking more than one if you choose to go that path. You’ll regret it in the morning.

The Double Rye and the Dolin’s are keys here. The Dolin’s a little more expensive than your standard-issue Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth, but very much worth it, I think. And the Double Rye, weirdly, varies in cost—when I lived in D.C. it would sometimes near $50; here in Texas, I get it for between $30 and $35 per bottle—but it’s a perfect Manhattan rye.

Shake, let sit for a moment—this will dilute the drink slightly to the benefit of making it much colder; as Kingsley Amis noted in his must-own book on the subject, Everyday Drinking, “It is more important that a cold drink should be as cold as possible than that it should be as concentrated as possible”—and pour into a chilled cocktail glass that you conscientiously placed in a freezer five minutes before this whole process started.


If we’re getting back to basics, we must have a martini. That’s a rule. And look, I’m not a purist. If you want to make a vodka martini, that’s fine by me. I’m not going to sit here and sneer that you’ve made a gimlet. Go with God. Vodka’s better than the pine tree solution that is gin, for the most part. (Gin is by far the worst of the major liquors. Bourbon, then scotch, then whiskey [non-Irish], then Irish whiskey, then vodka, then rum, then tequila, then gin. That’s it, that’s the ranking.)

That said, there is one thing that the classic gin martini offers that the vodka martini cannot. Or, at least should not.

Blue-cheese-stuffed olives.

I’m not going to pretend to be able to make these; find a deli or something that can hook you up. But they’re really the only reason to drink a martini. Well, that and the intoxication. The intoxication is another good reason to drink a martini. And if this is the third drink in the evening, that means we’re getting later on, and election results are starting to come in . . . you might just need a good, stiff, intoxicating drink.

Anyway, if you insist on drinking a martini, I’ll again reach for my Amis and suggest the following:

12-15 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
Blue-cheese-stuffed olives

The olives are my addition; I’ve never been a fan of cocktail onions. Ech. Anyway: For a single serving, you’re basically looking at two ounces of gin and half-a-teaspoon of dry vermouth. Just a taste. Throw it all in a shaker, shake, and pour. Toss in a couple of blue-cheese-stuffed olives, et voila.

There’s some argument over stirring vs. shaking; the stirrers will tell you that shaking is savagery, that it dilutes the drink and makes it cloudy. I prefer to shake, however. A good vigorous back and forth. More masculine, that. And I’m all about the masculinity.

Speaking of Amis, let’s make a Lucky Jim, shall we?

2 oz. Absolut Vodka
Half-teaspoon Dolin’s Dry Vermouth
Half-teaspoon cucumber juice
Slice of cucumber

This is really more of a spring/summer drink than an early-November drink, but it’s also delicious and this is my cocktail menu, so you’re just going to have to do as I say and make this delicious drink, now aren’t you?

The trick here is making the cucumber juice. A bit of a hassle. If you have a lemon squeezer, that can be made to work: just cut the cucumber into chunks and squeeze the cucumber. One cucumber will make more than enough juice for several of these drinks. Squeeze the cucumber, strain out the pulp, and save the juice that remains.

The drink is so called because it was the preferred beverage of the titular character in Amis’s novel Lucky Jim. Highly recommended if you need a reminder that things could always be worse after the election.

And now we move to the absinthe portion of the evening.

Things are getting weird. You weren’t expecting that result in Georgia, were you? Florida’s not resolving itself anytime soon. And man, Iowa. Hoo boy. That was a strange one, eh?

We haven’t even gotten to Waukesha yet.

Let’s see what the green fairy has to say about all this.

Of course, no one drinks absinthe straight. It’s gross. But it does serve as a key component of one of our greatest cocktails: the Sazerac. As a bonus, we’re back to rye. Here’s what you’ll need:

2 oz. rye
A bit of absinthe (I’ll explain)
Angostura bitters
Peychaud’s bitters
Lemon peel
Sugar/water (simple syrup will do since you already made it)

This is one of those cocktails that is almost always better in a bar. If you’re in a decent one, the bartender will even engage in some pyrotechnics. And fire improves every dining/drinking experience.

Anyway, you’re not at a bar, you’re at home. Because everything has collapsed in the face of COVID. So we’re going to do the best we can.

Get yourself two Old Fashioned glasses. Ideally, you’d put a sugar cube in the first glass and a few drops of water to dissolve it. But you might not have a sugar cube, because this isn’t 1927. So just splash a teaspoon of that simple syrup in there, along with your rye (I’m using Whistlepig 6 Year for this one), the Angostura bitters, and the Peychaud’s bitters. Add a few pieces of ice and let it sit.

In the second Old Fashioned glass, place a splash of absinthe and roll it around until the glass is coated. Strain the mixed cocktail into the absinthe-coated glass. Then take that lemon peel, twist, and garnish. If you want to get fancy, you could get a lighter and torch the lemon peel when you twist it, which will set off a delightful little flame.

Perfect whether you’re in a burn-it-all-down mood or want a little sparkle to celebrate.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association