Welcome to the weekly Bar\Heart Cocktail Hour! Each Friday afternoon, we send you the fodder you need for the upcoming weekend of cocktail parties, BBQs and other shenanigans. Subscribe and we'll mainline our brains straight to your inbox. Cheers!
Our Tuesday dispatch focused on what it means to belong in the Midwest, so I think we need to discuss something very Midwestern: The Wisconsin Old Fashioned. Did you know they were a thing? Yeah, me neither.
The bestie and I were sitting in a bar in downtown Milwaukee, having just arrived from Michigan on the S.S. Badger, and I was ready for an Old Fashioned, my go-to drink if I’m not ready to head straight into a bourbon, neat. It’s a simple mix of bourbon (I prefer rye), sugar (light!) and bitters, served iced cold. Simple, yet so terribly easy to f*ck up.
Anyway, I look over and see the bartender tarting up my humble Old Fashioned like it’s Fancy and her momma is about to turn her out. There is fruit. And muddling. And 7-Up.
What in the bloody hell is happening here, I think.
But my brain can’t react fast enough to stop it. The bestie looks on in horror as the bartender places a highball glass in front of me and drops a skewer of maraschino cherries on top.
I've had this version of an Old Fashioned too many times in the Midwest, in nice places like this and in joints where I ought not have been ordering anything more than a shot or a beer (2). When I’ve gotten these undrinkable abominations, I usually assume it is an untrained bartender or some miscommunication (3).
But this time, I wasn’t having it. I needed answers.
So we turned to the Google Box and discovered that this is called a Wisconsin Old Fashioned. This variety is made with brandy, sweet soda toppings and lots of fruit (4).
“Wisconsinites are conservative people, skeptical of trends and unimpressed by the worldly ways of the rest of the country,” Robert Simonson, author of The Old-Fashioned, and a Wisconsin native, told Wine Enthusiast magazine. “Once they find something they like, they stick to it and see no reason to change,” he says. “The brandy Old Fashioned wasn’t broken, so they never fixed it.”
I cannot co-sign the Wisconsin Old Fashioned, but I have mad respect for a people with such deep loyalty. It’s like being a Lions fan.
But friends do not let friends drink Wisconsin Old Fashioned. So above is Lovey’s (5) recipe for the Old Fashioned, which he perfected during the pandemic. It's a take on the classic that is both more bitter and has more depth thanks to the molasses simple syrup.
Note: Many recipes call for a sugar cube muddled in water. We use simple syrup because I'm not somebody who remembers to stock sugar cubes, whereas I can cook sugar and water as easily as pouring a glass of wine (6). We also make our own orange bitters, but that's a story for another day. Until then, you can buy them at most liquor stores.
For me, a good summer beach read is all plot, plot, plot; I want something that moves. Mix in a little mystery, a little romance and a healthy dose of good writing, and I’m staying in my shady spot until the book is done. And with the Libby library app, I can easily download my next delicious diversion. (Thankfully, Lovey is an excellent drink butler and keeps me fortified.) Here are a few of my recent raves.
Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon. Historical fiction based on a real woman who led the French Resistance in WW2 wearing Victory Red Lipstick. (For real.)
The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton. Key West, Labor Day weekend, 1935. A hurricane threatens the island. Three families changed forever. I devoured it and immediately downloaded the two other books in her Cuba-Keys series.
Best Laid Plans by Gwen Florio. Mystery with a female protagonist who discovers how strong she can be. Revenge! Bears! Murder! Gritty and fun; not gory. When you're done, check out her Lola Wix series.
Hello, Summer by Mary Kay Andrews. Great beach read formula by one of the masters of the genre. Girl forced to return home to deal with *the past*, a potential love interest, home renovation, and a whodunit!
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins. Siblings left to raise themselves. Surfing. Girl power. Rockstar dad. Family secrets. This literary fiction (isn't it interesting what gets deemed smart and what is commercial?) is from the author of Daisy Jones & the Six.
Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie. Another literary novel with even more family secrets. Plus rock and roll! Romance! Scandal! Nostalgia! Based loosely on the relationship between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams. Fizzy. Dizzy. 1930s society set on the New England coast. A baby. But whose? Star-crossed lovers between the locals and the summer people.
Got a piece of advice you want to share? Leave it in the comments or email email@example.com.
— Quickly becoming obsessed with New York magazine’s “are u coming?” newsletter about NYC nightlife. Do I live there? Not anymore. Do I want to move back? Call me when the real estate market crashes. But it reminds me of that delicious time in my twenties when these could have been my adventures. Even the fashion is eerily similar to my late 1990s stylings. So I'm drinking up these dispatches about a horny city that is ready to party.
— This week was the 37th anniversary of Prince's Purple Rain, so I reread Deeshaw Philyaw's essential take on how he gave her the "sexy Black cinema" she needed. Here's an excerpt, but the whole thing is a mood you don't want to miss.
This recommendation comes from Bar\Heart editor Caitlin Cruz: This baking show is exactly what you would expect from its name. Each week, four teams face off to reconstruct a baked good based on clues found in the “Crime Scene Kitchen."
Joel McHale is a truly forgettable and sometimes aggravating host, but the teams, made of pairs, are fun to root for. YouTube phenom Yolanda Gampp and chef Curtis Stone are tough-but-fair judges, and the “crime scenes” make for interesting puzzles. I crave media that doesn’t mention the pandemic, and this mostly delivers, except for a crossover episode with comedian Ken Jeong. It airs on Fox, but my girlfriend and I just watched it all on Hulu in three nights.
I swear, this is not one of those hipster, farmhouse chic things (7). No, this is a for-reals-and-trues life hack.
Have you ever tried making a cocktail in your fancy, design-forward cocktail shaker only to discover...you can’t get it open? Yeah, me too. You can learn to bash it open like a bartender does — or you can just use a mason jar with a shaker lid.
I swear, this is as God herself intended them to be used even though the packaging says the shaker lids are for storing spices. (Sort of how vibrators are marketed as back massagers.)
Here’s how it works: For shaken drinks, like last week’s Paper Plane, pour in all your ingredients, add some ice, screw on the shaker lid and top; and shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Pop the top and strain into a glass. Voila! Deliciousness.
It works equally well for making several stirred drinks at once, such as Lovey's Old Fashioneds. Add a handful of ice to the jar; measure in the ingredients; and stir, stir, stir! (You don't even need a fancy cocktail spoon; a regular teaspoon is long enough to do the trick.) When it’s good and cold, screw on the shaker top and strain into a glass with ice (8).
Sure, a mason jar isn’t as pretty as that cut glass mixing vessel West Elm keeps showing you on Insta, but this one has a hidden benefit: If you trade out the shaker top for a basic canning lid and ring, you’ve got a roadie!
Hank is not impressed.
That's it for this week. As Hank would say, Love and Bacon.
Special thanks to Castalia at Sfumato for the great picture. Don’t visit Detroit without stopping in; tell Kevin that Amy sent you.
No shade; I love me a dive bar.
I teach my students at MSU how to make a proper Old Fashioned, lest they use their bartending powers for evil.
Internet articles tell me the fruit may or may not have been added during prohibition to hide the poor quality of the hooch being served.
For those of you just joining us, Lovey is my husband. It was my nickname for him. It stuck, and now almost everyone calls him that.
Pro tip: Do not buy simple syrup at the store. It’s too easy to make at home. Just mix together 1 part sugar and 1 part water in a saucepan (Ex: 1 cup to 1 cup.) Heat over medium until the sugar crystals dissolve Let cool; store in the refrigerator. Same story for molasses simple syrup: Just mix 1:1 molasses and water, cooking on low until combined.
To be fair, I do use mason jars as drink glasses at home because, well, I grew up canning, and I still can, and I have so damned many.
Extra credit if you use giant cubes; they don't melt as fast and are better for dilution. But don’t waste your money on the fun Death Star and Skull molds. They don’t keep their shape long enough to matter. A basic square or sphere is perfect.
Of course, you don’t really have to have this. But once upon a time I was an editor at a very high-end magazine for very rich people and each week we ran a “must have” section where I, a girl from a trailer in rural Colorado, told said rich people what to buy. I included things like $7,000 whiskey sets. Because, why not? Here in Bar\Heart, I hope to tell you about the things we fall in love with, that change our lives — or that we wish would. But again, I once told people they needed a $7,000 whiskey set, so YMMV.