CHICAGO — Certain milestones will always raise an eyebrow when it comes to the alcohol we buy.
The first $50 bottle of beer. The first California wine to sell for $100. The first $250 bourbon.
In the fast-growing realm of ready-to-drink cocktails, another milestone has arrived: Gold Fashioned, a 750-milliliter bottle of Chicago-made, premixed Old-Fashioned, which goes on sale Wednesday for $150.
Of course, the same thought arises that accompanied every previous jaw-slackening boozy milestone: Can a $150 bottle of premixed cocktail possibly be worth the investment?
At the high end, 750-milliliter bottles of premixed Old-Fashioneds tend to cost between $35 and $45. More than three times as expensive, Gold Fashioned aims to make premium the realm of ready-to-drink cocktails — through its story, its ingredients, its packaging and a lofty price tag that conveys the idea that it is a different proposition.
Gold Fashioned is the brainchild of Robert Haynes, who worked from bar back to bar manager at renowned Chicago cocktail bar The Violet Hour before eventually developing Apologue, which makes high-end liqueurs. Like Apologue, Gold Fashioned is made at Thornton Distilling in south suburban Thornton.
Haynes and Apologue partner Jordan Tepper launched a new brand behind Gold Fashioned called Sunday’s Finest, which Haynes said could send more high-end, ready-to-drink cocktails to store shelves. But that may not include a return of Gold Fashioned, once its 9,000 bottles are sold.
“For Gold Fashioned, part of the appeal is the rare nature of the ingredients, and I don’t know what the supply chain is going to look like,” Haynes said.
Those ingredients are where Gold Fashioned aims to distinguish itself.
It begins, Haynes said, with the bourbon. Haynes said he spent six months looking for a bourbon at least seven years old that would create the “warm, mellow and sophisticated” base he wanted.
He found it, he said, in an eight-year bourbon from a “notable” distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, that remains secret at the request of the manufacturer.
The bourbon is blended with a five-year rye whiskey from MGP distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which has also supplied rye to brands that include Templeton, Angel’s Envy and Bulleit.
“Blending rye with bourbon gets this ‘best of both worlds’ thing — nice, rich, warm baking spice punctuated by this assertive rye whiskey,” Haynes said. “It makes for a more complex sipper.”
The next crucial ingredient is a 140-gallon batch of bitters made by Haynes, “coming full circle from my Violet Hour days.”
The bitters are made with an all-star lineup of global ingredients listed on the elegant blue box housing Gold Fashioned: Tahitian vanilla beans (“the biggest, fattest, juiciest vanilla beans I’ve seen,” Haynes said); saffron from Herat, Afghanistan; Ecuadorian cacao; orange peel from Seville, Spain; and gentian from the French alps.
Nothing was preprocessed, Haynes said: “Everything was straight-up herbs and spices.”
The bitters, and ingredients within, were as crucial as the bourbon, Haynes said. Gold Fashioned is rounded out with simple syrup made with Demerara sugar from Malawi.
“It’s not often people are able to sip whiskey with saffron or Tahitian vanilla,” Haynes said. “Those things are cost prohibitive, but it brings things out in the bourbon and rye.”
One more thing, and it’s a big one: Tucked into the box, alongside the tall Gold Fashioned bottle, is an elfin 2-milliliter plastic spray bottle filled with orange mist — that Spanish orange peel, macerated in alcohol. The drinker is meant to pump one spray 3 inches above the glass to finish the cocktail, and it is Gold Fashioned’s secret weapon, offering a bright, citrusy burst before the cocktail ever touches your lips.
With that tiny blast of orange, the aroma becomes a melding of citrus, dark fruit, maple, oak and a savory earthiness from the saffron, which quietly ties the entire package together — from the luminous yellow-tinged hue to an earthy, floral aromatic wrinkle.
On the palate, Gold Fashioned is a journey — a very tasty, very deft, very interesting journey. The best things we eat and drink tell a narrative, with clear beginnings, middles and ends. Gold Fashioned does just that: maple, fruit, vanilla and that savory earthy spice, folded into oaky heat that never overstays its welcome and segues into a long, balanced finish. The base spirits meld beautifully into the whole, but can get lost if too much ice melts (so don’t let that happen!).
Gold Fashioned is a well-built bottled cocktail boasting layers you’d be hard-pressed to create at home. It’s doubtful you’d find anything comparable even at most bars.
The issue, of course, is not only that it’s a pricey Old-Fashioned to be drinking at home, but that it is the priciest Old-Fashioned to drink at home. But Haynes said there was never much anxiety about the price tag.
“We knew where we were going with it,” he said. “I think some people will be shocked and some will be curious, and for people who are bourbon or whiskey aficionados, or appreciate the finer things, I don’t know it’ll be that big of a stretch.”
Price and worth are always difficult to evaluate in terms of food and drink, and the answer usually depends on context: For someone who relishes a well-built cocktail and can afford a $150 splurge, sure, Gold Fashioned is worth the exploration. Can someone who enjoys a quality cocktail live without it? Well, yes to that, too.
To gauge the value of Gold Fashioned, we pitted it against an array of premixed Old-Fashioned cocktails ranging in price from about $20 per bottle to $45. The pricier stuff is unquestionably better — more interesting, more balanced, more nuanced and clearly made with better ingredients.
There’s merit in both Handy & Schiller (made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Peychaud’s Bitters and “caramel color,” according to the label), which skews sweeter, and High West Barrel Finished Cocktail (rye, bourbon and bitters), which skews a little brawnier and more spirit-focused. That said, Gold Fashioned is more nuanced, less sweet where it needs to be, and softer where it should be.
Gold Fashioned is meant to be served over ice in 2-ounce increments, Haynes said, which yields about 12 cocktails per bottle and maps out to about $12.50 per pour of Gold Fashioned.
A cocktail at The Violet Hour? $13. Except this you can drink in your pajamas. Which, needless to say, you shouldn’t try at Violet Hour.
Gold Fashioned will be available during a two-week pop-up at Milk Room at the Chicago Athletic Association from Monday through Oct. 30. The menu will include three Old-Fashioned cocktails recreated from different historical periods, plus a made-to-order version of Gold Fashioned. Haynes will be behind the bar Mondays through Wednesdays. Bottles of Gold Fashioned will be available for sale.
Gold Fashioned will be sold online starting Wednesday, available to ship to 30 states, including Illinois. It will also be stocked in Chicago-area stores, including Binny’s, Foxtrot, Liquor Barn and Garfield’s Beverage Warehouse, plus select stores in New York; California; Washington, D.C.; and Florida.