The Chamomile Old Fashioned only seems like a contradiction. It’s a supposed combination of opposites, but to try it is to realize that they were never opposites at all.
We acknowledge the optics: Yes, the Old Fashioned is typically a boozy, whiskey-forward, slap-you-across-the-face thing, and, yes, chamomile is typically a bedtime, steaming mug, snuggle-up-under-a-blanket thing. But take a single taste and you’ll bypass these contrasting stereotypes with ease. It’s like your garrulous and charismatic friend who ends up marrying a mousey introvert—it doesn’t make any sense until you actually see how well they work together.
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A bottle of alcohol is a pretty standard gift, but I have a bartender friend who, every year, takes it a slightly different way with a little extra care. He infuses the liquor with something interesting and delicious, and then gives it in a custom bottle with a custom label. Strawberry-infused gin? Jalapeño-flavored tequila? He does whatever he thinks the recipient will enjoy. I mention this not only because it’s a good gift idea and Christmas is nigh, but to say that chamomile-infused bourbon is his most successful and enjoyed infusion to date.
As far as flavor combinations are concerned, chamomile and bourbon are up there on hallowed peaks of taste Olympus with tomato and basil, or peanut butter and bacon. The aroma of the infusion is the perfect mingling of the two, but its star power reveals itself when you taste it—first comes the oaky blast of the bourbon made pretty with just a hint of chamomile, and as the midpalate leads on, the chamomile rises while the bourbon falls away in perfect synchronicity, leaving a long lingering finish of warm chamomile flowers—the bourbon gently crackling on your taste buds like a yule log on a fire. It’s wonderful.
The Old Fashioned treatment harnesses this beautiful combination. If chamomile bourbon is like basil and tomato, then the Chamomile Old Fashioned is like a margherita pizza—it gives the flavors a platform on which to express themselves. Add a couple dashes of bitters for spice and a kiss of sweetness to fill it out, and the resulting cocktail is the perfect December companion, because both flavors have the effect of sinking you deeper into your chair. It’s simultaneously robust and seductive, bracing and comforting, an apparent contradiction that manages, nonetheless, to be.
Chamomile Old Fashioned
2 oz. chamomile-infused bourbon (instructions below)
0.25 oz. simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura or orange bitters
Add all ingredients to a rocks glass over a large piece of ice. Stir briefly and garnish with a lemon peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Chamomile-infused Bourbon: Infusions with tea are not only delicious, but they’re some of the easiest you’ll ever come across (tea already comes in small, infusion-ready packages). You can do this a-la-minute, if you please: pour about 2.25 ounces bourbon in a glass, add a chamomile tea bag, and let sit for about 15 minutes. For a bigger batch, I like 1 tea bag (that’s about 2g or 1 teaspoon for all you loose-leaf cowboys out there) for every eight ounces of whiskey, which makes it three bags for a whole 750ml bottle. Taste it after an hour, it’ll probably be good. You don’t necessarily want the chamomile to be so intense that it drowns out the subtler points of the bourbon. You can let it sit longer if you love the flavor, but I wouldn’t let it go more than 24 hours.
As for what bourbon to use—I think the combination really sings with bourbons on the sweeter, as opposed to spicier, end of the spectrum. Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses Small Batch, and Maker’s Mark would all be excellent.
Simple Syrup: Intuition might lead you toward honey syrup, but it adds weight to the final cocktail that I thought was less than helpful for the overall project. A simple white sugar or “demerara” syrup would be perfect here, equal parts sugar and hot water and stir until the sugar dissolves.
Bitters: Orange bitters are good, but Angostura bitters are better. Two small dashes or one big dash would do it.
Garnish: Orange peel would work, but I think a lemon peel brings a brighter relief that cuts like a sword through drink’s floral perfume.
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