What is a "traditional cocktail"? Of what would such a recipe consist?
Tradition is what we make it, the constantly unweaving or weaving (raveling or unraveling?), unfolding present, which is being in process, or becoming.
Traditional cocktails are always going to taste familiar because they are part of our immutable past. We can't change the past, so we can't change what traditional means, except by deliberately altering versions of past practice and formulae, through experiment and accident and testing. New combinations. Different approaches.
The spirits that have been invented by humankind are givens: They were developed over time, and we have inherited these prototypical substances through sheer passivity. They are what we've inherited. Whisky, tequila, gin, rum, brandy, vodka, aquavit--these are the classic "goods" from which all variations of mixture derive. They are the foundation upon which the taste pyramid--if you will--is built. The number of such variations isn't infinite, of course, but the numbers of possible permutations is vastly expandable, simply through minor variations in proportion.
Tradition is also popularity--the acknowledgment that one or another taste is very satisfying, or desirable. A Lemon Drop or a Rusty Nail aren't simply familiar because someone made them up and gave them a snappy logo, they're popular because they satisfy a universal quality of taste.
The following mixture uses ingredients whose basic flavors are wholly familiar, which is to say anyone who drinks recognizes them. The combination of bourbon and Drambuie (a proprietary orange flavored liqueur) is familiar as the Rusty Nail, mentioned above, but with the addition of these other flavors, it is only vaguely "reminiscent" of that familiar taste. Supposing no one had ever before tried combining bourbon and Drambuie; then what we know as the Rusty Nail would not exist.
It may be that most of the "easy" combinations have all been tried, at one time or another, and that the contemporary trend toward "flavored" bitters, spicing and so forth, is just an obvious symptom of the exhaustion of possible combinations of the usual spirit goods we know. The challenge, with cocktail mixes, as in life, is to find the novel or unique version that can capture attention and enter the permanent collection of desirable choices.
A great cocktail is like a poem. Its ingredients may be familiar, but the way it's constructed, its specific combinations make it unique. We can paraphrase its qualities, but the actual experience is always more compelling than the explanation, the alembic of its effect. If we could package poetry, the way we do liquor--bottle its essence, preserve it and market it in abbreviated form--we could make a bundle. But there are no shortcuts to healthy experience. Sex and eating and swimming, and drinking a perfect cocktail at 5 PM can't be captured and made more convenient, can't be duplicated or saved or prolonged through some device or potion.
So let's live and appreciate what there is, because our time is limited. Let's call this one, then, The Limited, since it reminds us of the fragility and ephemerality of life, passing us by. Like the little trays passing before us on the sushi conveyer track, decked out with clever arrangements of fish and rice and vegetable concoctions, we have to select. And so we shall.
3 parts Woodford Reserve bourbon
1 part madeira
1 part amaro
1 part 151 rum
1 part fresh lemon juice
1/2 part Drambuie
All ingredients (by proportion) shaken and served up into chilled cocktail glasses.