The Weekly Mix: Synesthesia and the Old Country at The Volstead

by Emily Bell
Will Blunt
April 2012

Biography

Restaurant

If the Daisy is the cocktail equivalent of traipsing barefoot through dewy Kentucky bluegrass, the Old Country Daisy is like doing just that—while drinking the color yellow. It’s cocktail-inspired synesthesia. At least that’s what we thought when we visited Austin’s The Volstead last summer and took our first (drug free, we swear) sip of Justin Elliott’s lemon wheel-crowned update on the refreshing classic. “All my cocktails have a classical backbone,” says Elliott. But where your basic Daisy offers the ticklish refreshment of a fizzed up Sour, the Old Country Daisy tacks surprising flavor, body, and, yes, color onto that package.

In a cocktail culture where names are as often dreamed up of as thought through, “Old Country” is the spot-on moniker for what Elliott does to his Daisy. For starters, the base is made of two Old Country spirits. Boomsma Genever Oude (literally “old” genever) is the juniper-spiked gin precursor still famously consumed by tipping yourself over, towards the bar and your over-full tulip glass, in proeflokalen. Lest the name confuse you, oude actually connotes in the old style, or, in this case the way they did things before World War I reprioritized grain needs. Basically, except for optional (and brief) oak aging, what separates oude from "jonge" or "young" genever is that it's still made with at least 15 percent malt wine, lending it body and character that almost defies its gin-lineage.

“I wanted some of that malty butteriness,” Elliott says of the Boomsma, a relatively cheap Oude genever that delivers apple and warm vanilla alongside its juniper kick. That subtle, buttery fruit might have been what sold Elliott on genever as a match for his driving flavor, pear. “I got super into pears,” says Elliott, a decade-plus bartender who actually began the craft phase of his career relatively recently, and ardently. With the genever buttressing the Pear Williams Purkhart, he noticed, “that fruit just pops out of there.” Adding to the “old country” factor, Pear Williams Purkhart is an eau de vie made exclusively with Williams pears grown in our favorite slice of Old Country, Alto Adige. Put this all together with a half ounce each of honey syrup and milder, sweeter yellow Chartreuse, the juice of one very gently expressed lemon wheel (getting yellower, right?), and you’ve got a base that’s floral, complex, and just beginning to glow.

But what makes the Old Country so sunshiny bright is Elliott’s sea-salted soda water, which not only lifts and aromatizes the drink, but also pops with salinity, a flavor we're tasting more of in craft cocktails. The soda water, too, is a nod to “old” in Old Country. “Originally sodas weren’t just carbonated water. Soda is supposed to have some amount of sodium in it,” says Elliott. “I was just kind of playing with that idea—that little bit of brininess kind of just gives it a lift, and an Old World feel, a little bit.” If it's Old World, it's Good World, too; the drink goes down like a divinely brackish highball, with lots of pear on the palate and florals on the nose.

As different as the Old Country Daisy is from the Daisy, the biggest difference might be how Elliott got there. Like many of his bartending brethren, when Elliott first got really crafty with his craft drinks, he became a tad preoccupied with preserving the unspoilt integrity of the spirit, articulating as opposed to mixing particular ingredients. “I was more concerned with each ingredient really shining,” says Elliott, who also was also briefly “really against” dual spirit cocktails. But Elliott has since seen, and tasted, an alternative approach (call it "meta-mixology"). “I don’t grab a spirit and say I’m going to build a drink based on this spirit anymore.” Instead, as in the Old Country Daisy, “it’s more about a finished product, what it says at the very end.” A complex, exceedingly pleasant cocktail, it had a cohesive character that still said a lot of individual things to us. (And yes, we insist, they were all yellow.)

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