Improved Whiskey Cocktail
With a name like Improved Whiskey Cocktail, there’s no wonder this drink has been our top seller at Clover Club since we opened. It’s one of the only drinks that never leaves our menu, and in 10 years we’ve sold over 40,000 of them!
I typically describe this drink to customers as a cross between an Old Fashioned and Sazerac - after which they typically order one (sometimes so quickly it, they don’t even read the name correctly, “one Improvised Whiskey Cocktail please!”). It has the weighty gravitas of a classic Old Fashioned, with a Sazerac-like floral herbaceousness, courtesy of the maraschino and absinthe.
Is it better than an Old Fashioned or Sazerac? I wouldn't go that far, those pillars of cocktail history are in a class of their own. But it is an absolutely delightful scenic detour on that familiar, well-trodden route, and one well worth taking.
2 oz rye whiskey
½ teaspoon simple syrup
½ teaspoon Maraschino
3 dashes Angostura bitters
⅛ teaspoon absinthe - about 2 small dashes
lemon peel for garnish
Combine all ingredients in a chilled mixing glass. Fill with ice, stir for 15-25 seconds and strain into a chilled rocks glass over ice, preferably one large cube. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel (orange is nice too).
Alternatively, combine and stir all ingredients in a chilled rocks glass over ice, and garnish.
If you make an Improved Whiskey Cocktail,
let me see! Tag a photo with @socialhourcocktails on Instagram.
History of the Improved Whiskey Cocktail
Despite sounding like a modern variation, this is not a Clover Club original. The Improved Whiskey Cocktail dates back to the gilded age, which stretched roughly from the 1870s to 1900. During this time of disproportionate wealth and rampant political corruption (not much has changed it seems), a trend emerged of adding dashes of imported liqueurs to cocktails, such as curaçao, maraschino, and, particularly, absinthe.
These spruced up renditions - or aggrandized, you might say - were known as “fancy" or “improved” cocktails. Technically, a fancy cocktail had curaçao, and an improved cocktail had maraschino and absinthe. This is according to Jerry Thomas’ Bar-Tender’s Guide, the first cocktail book ever written. These riffs greatly diversified a customer’s drink options, which were still fairly narrow back then. It also, presumably, was a way of displaying wealth and class.
As discussed on the Old Fashioned page, back then a basic cocktail was a specifically defined category of mixed drink comprised of a spirit with some sugar and bitters. So what we now think of as an Old Fashioned was called a “Whiskey Cocktail”, and it’s improved counterpart was an “Improved Whiskey Cocktail”. To bring things full circle, this is what led to the name "Old-Fashioned" because customers would call for an “Old-Fashioned Whiskey Cocktail” to distinguish it from the modern version. I can just picture a crusty old-timer barking “don’t put any of that fancy crap in my drink!”.
The original recipe called for Boker's Bitters, which was a household name back then, like Angostura is today. Rye whiskey is the traditional choice, though bourbon will certainly work out just fine. This originally was served straight up, but I prefer the dilution from serving it on the rocks.
Improved cocktails could be made with brandy and genever - the maltier relative of gin, which was very popular at the time. But for me, it's all about whiskey, though I know David Wondrich would disagree. He prefers his Improved Cocktails with genever and curaçao in place of Maraschino. I’m proud to say I’ve personally prepared him one of those on more than one occasion. Wondrich has a lot more to say about Plain, Fancy, and Improved Cocktails in his book “Imbibe!”.