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Classic Drinks: The King Cole Cocktail Will Make You a Merry Old Soul
An Old Fashioned with Fernet Branca and pineapple? Yeah, I thought that might get your attention.
I first had the King Cole at a Washington, DC bar called 2 Birds 1 Stone (a place that's definitely worth a visit if you're in the area). At the time, I didn't know that the drink was a classic. I assumed it was a modern riff on a Toronto, since both drinks feature whiskey, Fernet, and simple syrup. But the King Cole has been around a lot longer than I thought.
King Cole (or Old King Cole as it's sometimes called) pops up in a number of cocktail books, the oldest of which I've seen being Hugo Ensslin's 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks. Unfortunately, none of these books give any clue as to who invented it or where it came from. My first bets were on the King Cole Bar in New York (for obvious reasons), but this drink was around well before that bar.
It's not a stretch to think that the drink may have gotten its name from the old nursery rhyme:
Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there's none so rare, as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.
Have no doubt, after a few of these you'll be a merry old soul indeed.
King Cole is basically an Old Fashioned that uses Fernet Branca as the bitters. The garnish adds on a chunk of fragrant pineapple, and the final result is a bit mellower than your standard O-F, with a nice juicy citrus side and a smooth finish. It's a bit lighter on the bitter aspects than an Old Fashioned, and adds on an herbal, minty flavor.
Despite the inclusion of Fernet Branca, this isn't a bold, aggressive drink—King Cole is the kind of cocktail that almost anyone would enjoy, whether they're cocktail fanatics or new to the mixed-drink scene.
To make a variation on the old classic, I didn't want to go too far from the Fernet Branca and fruit used in the original. Instead of using bourbon and simple syrup, though, I pulled out a bottle of Hochstadter's Rock and Rye, which we've mentioned on Serious Eats before. Rye brings more spice than bourbon and the added flavors of orange and honey go well in this drink, plus the sweetener is already built in. I upped the Fernet Branca to stand up to the stronger flavors.
To emphasize the orange flavor, I added a little Pierre Ferrand dry curacao instead of the orange twist. Finish it off with a few blueberries and you've got something with a little more oomph than the original King Cole.
The Boy Blue, as I call it, has that bitter spice of an Old Fashioned that's somewhat lacking in the original King Cole. It has accents of sugar, orange, and grain with an herbal undertone, and a lightly bittered finish to round it out.
About the author: Nick Caruana is the author of The Straight Up, where he shares his love of classic and modern cocktails, including a slight obsession with whiskey, bitters and amari. Stalk him on Twitter @The_Straight_Up, Facebook, and other social media outlets.