Picture the scene: you’re on a date with one of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen. You’re at a lovely cocktail bar in Belmont, New York or Soho, London, and your date orders a Negroni while they casually mention they’re half Italian.
There’s only one issue: you don’t like gin.
You’re a Jack and coke sort of person. The Old Pal is here to save your night. If you want to avoid a close call with that potential next special someone, or you’re just a whiskey lover looking to get away from the classic sours and old fashioneds, let’s jump right in!
Old Pal Cocktail Overview
Paris, the 1920s. Smokey cafes, the birth of postmodern philosophy, and Harry MacElhone creating a twist on the popular negroni for one of his close friends, his ‘old pal’.
The old pal is actually closer to a boulevardier (another MacElhone creation, a negroni where the gin is changed out for whiskey), swapping the sweet vermouth for dry.
Equal parts rye whiskey, dry vermouth, and Campari bitters create a beautiful, classy, European cocktail that is perfect for a date, a celebratory drink, or a nice bit of aperitivo (the Italian tradition of having a few drinks before an evening meal to whet the appetite).
I won’t pull any punches, you’re not likely to see this on a lot of cocktail menus, especially if you live in the US. However, don’t let that put you off.
Good mixologists are used to customizing drinks for their customers so as long as they have some rye whiskey (which again, most good bars will) they’ll be able to make you up an old pal in no time at all.
What’s the Difference Between Dry and Sweet Vermouth?
Vermouth is an Italian form of fortified wine. Additional alcohol is added to the wine alongside a selection of herbs and spices where it is infused and distilled to create the drink which has spread out from Turin to become incredibly popular and an essential in any mixologist’s bar.
Sweet vermouth is traditionally a reddy/brown color whereas dry vermouth is much paler. Don’t confuse sweet vermouth with Bianco vermouth sold by many brands. Bianco is a sweet white vermouth that is excellent for cooking with, and a beautiful drink to enjoy either on its own, or with soda or lemonade, but it isn’t what most cocktail recipes use unless specified.
Vermouth is easy enough to get a hold of either online or in most major supermarkets, especially in Europe. If you want a trusted, easily accessible, high-quality brand, stick with Martini and Rossi.
It’s the top-selling international brand of vermouth for good reason and many bartenders’ (including my own) go-to choice.
Old Pal Cocktail Recipe
Now that we’ve dived into the old pal cocktail, aperitivo, vermouth, and the differences between an old pal, negroni, and boulevardier, let’s get into how to actually made the drink:
- Step 1: Chill a coupe glass in the freezer for an hour or so before serving.
- Step 2: Add 1 ounce each of your favorite rye whiskey, Campari bitters, and dry vermouth into a mixing glass.
- Step 3: Add a handful of ice and stir nice and gently for 30-60 seconds (or until the mixing glass is no longer freezing to the touch). Be careful to not over stir or your drink will become diluted and watery.
- Step 4: Strain into your coupe and garnish with a lemon twist. Enjoy.
It’s a simple recipe but, as with its cousins the negroni and boulevardier, balance is key with the old pal.
The three equal parts ratio is what gives the cocktail delicacy and a touch of Italian class to what would otherwise be rye whiskey with some extra flavoring.
Some recipes will call for 2 parts rye, and 1 part each of vermouth and bitters, however, I really wouldn’t recommend throwing away that delicate balance for the sake of something stronger, especially if you’re drinking this as an aperitivo.
If you want something that tastes strongly of rye whiskey, have a glass of rye. If you want something much smoother, classier, and more refined, have an old pal.
How Do I Make the Old Pal My Own?
If you really do want to mix up the old pal, why not try changing out the rye for a lovely bourbon such as an Elijah Craig or Four Roses?
Or, you could make it an all-European affair by opting for a lovely Scotch Whisky and bring a balance of the hot, dry Mediterranean and the cold, wet Highland climates into your coupe glass.
We all know whiskey drinkers have their own preferences and loyalties, so just because the recipe is traditionally rye, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it.
Keeping that balance of three equal parts spirit, vermouth, and bitters is by far the most important thing with the old pal cocktail.
The old pal is a fantastic cocktail for the whiskey lover who wants something different from a sour or an old fashioned, something more appropriate for a summer evening perhaps.
Or maybe you’re a huge fan of the negroni and americano and want another southern European cocktail to add to your roster.
Either way, the old pal is a cocktail slightly off the beaten track that will almost certainly pique the interest of whoever you’re drinking with.
It’s a beautifully balanced work of art and the next time you’re at a cocktail bar, or just making drinks for yourself and your guests, consider having yourself an old pal.
I started bartending in 2017, just 4 days after my 18th birthday, at a cocktail bar in my hometown. I immediately fell in love with the art and science of mixology and have since worked in bars across Yarm, York and Liverpool in England.