Scotch whisky cocktails
Words by Simon Difford
Scotch whisky - both blends and single malts have a reputation for not being cocktail friendly due to their peaty/smoky/salty character. Post Sam Ross' fabulous Penicillin cocktail I thought we were over misconception but sadly/wrongly scotch whisky is still often overlooked as a cocktail ingredient.
Years ago mezcal was a spirit that was also considered challenging compared to the contrasting subtleties of tequila but now mezcal is embarrassed by the world's best bartenders. Let's be honest, even the smokiest of Islay malts is subdued compared to the most expressive mezcals. And anyway, aren't such flavoursome spirits something to rejoice, their character harnessed and used to good effect in stand-out cocktails? The Penicillin is such a drink and there are many others.
Follows what I think are the best and most interesting of the 125+ scotch whisky cocktails on this website but for starters we all know that whisky is best served with water. Even if you like your whisky served neat its better with a glass of palate refreshing cold water on the side. Having spent my formative years in London pubs I gravitate to a 'scotch and soda' after the first cleansing pint or so but the Japanese have taken whisky and water to another level with the MizuWari.
Pronounced 'Miz-Zoo-Ware-E', this translates as 'mizu' = water and 'wari' = divide, thus a MizuWari is simply whisky stirred with ice and a little water in a tall thin glass to chill and dilute the whisky. The ratio is personal to both the drinker and bartender and varies between 1:2.5 and 1:4. As is the delight of Japanese bartending, the MizuWari is made in a stylish, time consuming, almost ritualistic manor. Perhaps this is just a ridiculously long-winded way of serving whisky with water and ice but the use of modern refrigeration to chill the water and glass rather meticulous stirring of ice would remove the theatre that makes this drink so special. And to drink out of a thick-rimmed standard collins glass is not to experience the feel of a wafer-thin Japanese glass on your lips or to appreciate the care the bartender must use in handling and cleaning such a super fine glass.
The most spectacular whisky and water serve, the Blue Blazer was created by 'Professor' Jerry Thomas, author of the first bartending book and master showman. President Ulysses S. Grant witnessed Thomas perform this spectacle and was apparently so impressed that he presented him with a cigar. In his 1862 Bartender's Guide Thomas wrote: "A beholder gazing for the first time upon an experienced artist, compounding this beverage, would naturally come to the conclusion that it was a nectar for Pluto rather than Bacchus."
Scotch whisky has a reputation for being hard to mix
OK, the fact that scotch, single malt or blended, mixes well with water - either still or sparkling - is not disputed, but the suitability and ease of using scotch whisky in cocktails has been challenged by my heroes.
"Whisky..., "is a grouchy old bachelor that stubbornly insists on maintaining its own independence and is seldom to be found in a marrying mood. Its flavour refuses to be subdued. When combined with some other liquor the result will frequently be two distinct flavours, possibly antagonistic to one another, instead of a new and pleasing fragrance that is merely subtly suggestive of the two original essences"
David A Embury , The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
"it requires genius to make whiskey punch"
Jerry Thomas, Bartenders Guide
"Really smoky Scotches, like the Islay malts, are the hardest of all the whiskies to find a home for in cocktails, though it's not impossible... "American blended and straight whiskies are much more cocktail-friendly..."
Dale Degroff, The Craft of the Cocktail
OK, let's be honest vodka mixes with pretty much everything while the more characterful likes of blended scotch and scotch single malts are a tad more choosy about their bedfellows. However, find and exploit the flavours they combine well with and the results are sublime. Flavour matching is perhaps a little overused phrase in today's drinks' industry but the following are some of the ingredients/flavours that mix brilliantly with Scotch whisky:
• apple juice - and to a lesser degree pineapple juice
• lemon juice - much better than lime as a citric bedfellow
• orange juice (and zest) but preferably blood orange. In fact preferably blood orange full stop.
• banana - overripe/turning black fresh banana or good crème de banane
• pear - ripe and succulent rather than hard and tasteless
• cherries - every category of whisk(e)y likes a cherry - at least as a garnish
• liquorice - go easy (less is more). Consider infusing liquorice root sticks or for consistency use a liquorice liqueur or syrup.
• chocolate - cacao, dark, milk or white
• cream - whisk(e)y cream liqueurs are some of the world's best-selling liqueurs
• milk - see above
• nuts - Scotch likes all types of nuts, especially when roasted
• anise - see Islander cocktail below
• star anise
• spices - see above but add cinnamon, nutmeg etc.
• absinthe - all categories of whisk(e)y like a few dashes of good quality absinthe
• tea - black tea, green tea and even smoky Lapsang Souchong tea
• coconut - desiccated, liqueur, water or even cream of coconut
• vermouth - both dry vermouth and sweet vermouths
• sherry - so many whiskies brag about being aged in sherry casks that you know sherry is a good match for Scotch
• port - see above but go tawny or white over ruby or even vintage
• herbal liqueurs - such as Chartreuse, Drambuie and Bénédictine
• honey - why use sugar syrup?
• ginger - I drunk Whisky Macs in my formative years and the simple Scotch & ginger ale hi-ball is a great drink but "Mamie Taylor" is a better bar call.
So to the cocktails - firstly the classic/vintage cocktails:
Blood & Sand
The Blood & Sand has to be the leading blended scotch cocktail (hi-balls such as the Scotch & Ginger excepted) but a Bloody Blood & Sand made with blood orange juice and a splash of Islay single malt so much better. Indeed, when able I'd recommend always using blood orange over more anaemic varieties of orange.
Supposedly dating back to contamination of drinking water as a 1475 war tactic, the mythical tale might be hard to digest but this drink is older than most nation states - the UK included. The use of ice and liqueurs in our Atholl Brose recipe brings the cocktail into the modern day era and anyone who likes porridge and honey for breakfast should try this wholesome oatmeal and Scotch cocktail.
Scotch whisky Sour
Whisk(e)y Sours tend to be made using whiskey with an 'e' - mostly bourbon. However, I'd argue that the Scotch Sour with its peaty/smoky/salty undertones is a better drink. Cut back on the sugar syrup and add some liquorice syrup or liqueur and you have an even more gratifying Liquorice Whisky Sour, a drink created by Tony Conigliaro at London's Shochu Lounge in 2006.
Rob Roy & Affinity
Invented at the Waldorf Hotel in 1984 and named after the opera that opened in New York that year, the Rob Roy is basically a Scotch Manhattan. We have two Rob Roy recipes, the first Rob Roy resembles a Sweet Manhattan complete with cherry syrup, while the second is Embury's take on the Rob Roy with Peychard's bitters in place of Angostura bitters.
The Affinity is best described as being a scotch based Perfect Manhattan and although seldom ever ordered is a fantastic drink. The Affinity works brilliantly in equal proportions, producing a drink I consider superior to either of the Rob Roys above. I know many of you will wince at the thought of shaking this combination of scotch whisky and vermouth but try it. Although not looking as appealing as when stirred, the shaken drink has a pleasing almost creamy mouthfeel.
There are numerous Bobby Burns cocktail recipes and we have three on Difford's Guide - all good if not great: Craddock's Bobby Burns (scotch, sweet vermouth and Benedictione), Crockett's (scotch, sweet vermouth, orange bitters and absinthe) and Embury's (scotch, sweet vermouth, Drambuie and Peychard's bitters). For the three Difford's Guide recipes, I've quite dramatically adapted Craddock's but been more faithful to the other two. Predictably Embury's Bobby Burns remains my favourite.
Hot Toddy & Scotch Whisky Punch
Charles Dickens's mentions the Hot Toddy in his first book, The Pickwick Papers published in 1836 and it is one of the world's oldest mixed drinks. The wafts of scotch whisky, honey and spice in the steaming vapours make a cold winter's evening tolerable and are truly rejuvenating if you have a cold or flu. We have two recipes, Hot Toddy #1 and Hot Toddy #2, the second using hot black tea rather than simply boiling hot water. Being an Englishman you won't be surprised to hear that I consider the one with tea far superior.
To write about scotch whisky cocktails and not mention the Rusty Nail would be negligent and a search for the word 'nail' in our cocktail pages will reveal that there are many riffs on this Drambuie flavoured scotch cocktail. However, my favourite 'Nail' is the brilliantly named Rusty Tack which I discovered in NYC in 2001. (Please let me know if you were the originator.)
I enjoyed my first Heather Julep back in 2001, obviously scotch based juleps date from much earlier and this Heather Julep recipe benefits from the use of Drambuie as a sweetener rather than sugar. I'd also suggest trying honey.
Back at the top of this page I mentioned Sam Ross' excellent Penicillin, cocktail a Whisky Sour which combines peaty Islay single malt with blended scotch, honey, ginger and lemon, proving beyond argument that peaty character can work fabulously in a cocktail.
Difford's scotch cocktails
My own Amber Nectar also uses Islay single malt, blended scotch and honey but this time with dry vermouth. I was inspired to make it after trying an Amber Nectar cocktail promoted by Bols, originally based on vodka with Bols honey liqueur. The combination of honey and dry vermouth just cried out for scotch and then some Islay single malt.
The Netherlands also inspired my There it is. I consider genever basically a blend of whiskey (well whisky-like malt wine) and gin, hence I wanted to try combining a malty genever with scotch whisky, to which I added maraschino and blood orange juice.
Gaz Regan's Islander proves that aniseed works well with scotch (he uses Pernod). Inspired by this and tasked by the folk at Johnny Walker to present how well scotch whisky mixes to bartenders in Athens, I substituted ouzo for Pernod in a riff on Gaz's drink I call a Santorini.