The Old Pal cocktail is often oversimplified as a “rye Negroni.” While the composition remains similar—a spirit, a red bitter liqueur and vermouth—key differences change the drink immensely.
Whereas the Boulevardier also follows the Negroni template, only the base spirit (bourbon in place of gin) is changed. In the rye-based Old Pal recipe, vermouth is also given a switch, with dry vermouth being used rather than sweet. Paired with the spicy, peppery notes typically found in rye whiskey, this creates a drier cocktail with a bit more bite, for those who find Negronis a touch too sugary or cloying.
The cocktail was first recorded around 1920 by Harry MacElhone, proprietor of Harry’s Bar in Paris, who was also credited with creating or popularizing classic drinks like the Boulevardier, Monkey Gland, Sidecar, White Lady and Bloody Mary. He included it in his book Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, claiming to name the drink after his “old pal,” sportswriter William “Sparrow” Robinson of the New York Herald.
Canadian Club is a classic whisky option cited in many early rye cocktail recipes, including the Old Pal. Though popular prior to Prohibition, the U.S.’s ban on the production of alcohol created an illicit market for the Ontario-produced spirit, particularly through the bootlegging efforts of Al Capone, solidifying its place in both speakeasies and cocktail books of the time.
For those looking to update their whiskey choice, Evanston, Illinois-based FEW Spirits’ Rye Whiskey offers an option with a touch of corn to compliment the mash, creating a rye with bold spice and a hint of sweetness. WhistlePig also has a 10 Year Straight Rye bottled at 100 proof, which provides enough backbone to stand up in a cocktail where whiskey represents only a third of the ingredients.
Vermouth is just as important as whiskey in the Old Pal. Though early versions of the recipe call specifically for “Eyetalian vermouth,” a sign of the times and MacElhone’s belief in his own sense of humor, any French dry vermouth like Dolin or Noilly Prat will work just fine. Italy-based Carpano—which produces the beloved-by-bartenders Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth, also makes a Carpano Dry option that works beautifully in cocktails.
Similarly, while the standard recipe uses Campari, which is suited to balance this combination of drier ingredients, there’s a wealth of bitter red aperitivi on the market, and it may be worth experimenting to find others you enjoy. Cappelletti is a lighter wine-based bottling that works well in cocktails, while Contratto contributes less sweetness than Campari. Luna Aperitivo, created by Don Ciccio & Figli in Washington, D.C., is a dark red option modeled in the classic Italian style, that provides ample bitterness for cocktails. However, note that as these alternatives tend to have less noticeable sugar than Campari, so expect a drier-tasting drink. This can also be balanced by including a splash (or completely substituting) of blanc/bianco vermouth for dry.
Enjoy experimenting with this recipe to find your own favorite formulation. To get you started, here’s how to make a classic Old Pal.
In mixing glass filled with ice, combine all ingredients except garnish. Stir smoothly and vigorously for 30–45 seconds until well chilled. Strain into chilled martini glass, coupe or Nick & Nora glass. Garnish with lemon twist.