HOW IS IT MADE?
The Old Pal is one of those time-honored drinks that, according to Jigger & Pony's bartender Samuel Wong, should be a staple on every mixologist's repertoire. The proportions of the original recipe have been tweaked slightly—more on that later—but the ingredients remain the same: rye whiskey, French dry vermouth and Campari in a 2:1:1 proportion. For a single serve, use 1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey and 3/4 ounces each of dry vermouth and Campari. To assemble, mix ingredients in a pitcher, stir in ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Finish off with a jaunty lemon twist. Wong says that the straightforward nature of this cocktail means you can’t cut corners: the Old Pal demands the very best ingredients for it to shine.
WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?
A true classic, the Old Pal is steeped in history—and a mini mystery of sorts. The drink was first mentioned in the 1922 edition of Harry's ABCs of Cocktails, a massive tome of recipes compiled by the legendary Harry McElhone of Harry's New York Bar in Paris. McElhone attributed the concoction to William "Sparrow" Robinson, a sports writer and a flamboyant fixture of the Parisian bar scene during the Prohibition era. A gregarious chap by all accounts, Robinson was known to address even the slightest of acquaintances as an "old pal".
So that explains the drink's name, but what about the ingredients? The 1922 recipe is notable for being one of the first two published cocktails to have incorporated Campari, with equal parts whiskey and dry vermouth making up the rest of the drink. However, in McElhone's next book Barflies and Cocktails (1927), the Old Pal was dropped and the drink re-christened The Boulevardier, a very similar cocktail that differs only with its use of sweet vermouth versus dry and the use of lemon versus orange twist.
While the 1927 Barflies omits the Old Pal, it can be found buried in the American poet Arthur Moss’s appendix to the book, with one small but significant change: Moss describes it as being composed of 1/3 Canadian Club whiskey, 1/3 "Eyetalian" vermouth and 1/3 Campari. We see how Moss has specified "Eyetalian" (by all indications an idiosyncratic spelling of "Italian") instead of the 1922 recipe's use of dry vermouth. Because the Old Pal is not mentioned again by McElhone, the most die-hard of cocktail connoisseurs will forever be left wondering which recipe is canonical—although it's safe to say that the earlier version with dry vermouth has emerged as the definitive one adopted by bartenders today.
"The Old Pal's bittersweet layers remind me of the obstacles in the beginning of my bartending career that have toughened me up to become the man, husband and father that I am today."
As Wong himself notes, tracing a drink's evolution can be a most intellectually rewarding and entertaining bit of business: "It’s fascinating to see how drinks build upon each other. Its pedigree is part of what makes the Old Pal one of my absolute favorite cocktails, but the main draw is how smooth it is to the taste."
Indeed, esoteric "mystery" aside, Jigger & Pony's version of the Old Pal is stout and spicy, bracing and bitter, a great choice for warming yourself up on a rainy evening. The handsome amber hue courtesy of Rittenhouse 100, the Old Pal is a great vehicle to showcase high-proof rye whiskies: besides Rittenhouse 100, Wong also recommends experimenting with Knob Creek and Michter's if you're planning to try your hand at making an Old Pal at home. Wong likes to use Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry for its lovely chamomile notes, which doesn't compete with the aggressive whiskey flavors. Everything is precisely calibrated for a balanced drink, including the expressed oils of the lemon garnish: the subtle citrusy nose is a winsome complement to the herbal sweetness of the Campari.
WHEN TO INDULGE?
Traditionally imbibed as an aperitif because of the palette-opening tang of the Campari, Wong says the Old Pal can also be enjoyed as a leisurely post-dinner drink with well, your old pals: "This cocktail is quite versatile because the robust whiskey notes won’t be dulled by a heavy dinner. Granted, this isn't the lightest of digestifs, but I find it lends itself well to washing down a hearty red meat main course."
WHO CREATED IT?
The Old Pal is of course an old drink created back in the day by Harry McElhone, but the young man recreating it for us is Samuel Wong from Jigger & Pony. An amusingly boyish counterpoint to the august, whiskey-heavy drink he is making here, Wong has earned his stripes by working for various giants in the bartending scene, including a stint at Orgo under the tutelage of his mentor and friend, the famed Satoshi Iwai. Keep an eye out for this promising protege: Wong took part in his first Diageo Reserve World Class competition this year (he made it to the second round), as well as the Singapore leg of the Diplomatico World Tournament.
Jigger & Pony
101 Amoy Street, Singapore
Tel: +65 6223 9101
Images © Albert Tan of Olive Tree Studio