Coming to Terms with Scotch Whisky-Based Cocktails

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


Rob Roy cocktail. [Photograph: The Culinary Geek on Flickr]

My attitude toward cocktails based on scotch whisky can be neatly summarized: I like scotch whisky, and I like cocktails, but I (almost) never like scotch whisky-cocktails.

I'm hardly alone. Aside from simple highballs and hot toddies, which are usually just variations on ways of adding water and sometimes sugar to the whisky, most bartending guides from the late 19th and 20th centuries have only a handful of scotch-based cocktails, and many of those are forgettable. And when I first addressed this topic several years ago, many Serious Eats readers chimed in that when they felt the urge to pour some scotch into a glass, nothing more than water was desired to make the experience complete.

Much of the reason for scotch whisky's mixological scarcity is due to its distinctive flavor: rich and robust, with a character ranging from bright and heathery to smoky and medicinal, single-malt scotch is so assertive in its own right that it simply doesn't share the stage well with other ingredients. (There's also the cost element, which we won't go into here other than to say that at the prices most single malts are fetching nowadays, you need to feel fairly flush to be comfortable experimenting with scotch in a cocktail shaker.) Blended scotches such as Famous Grouse or those from Johnny Walker tend to smooth down the most pronounced character issues found in single malts, and most of the scotch cocktails in circulation are improved by choosing a blend over a single malt; still, blends have a touch of oil, a barley sweetness and a wisp of smoke that can skew a complex cocktail's flavor in unexpected and often unpleasant directions.

There are, of course, exceptions. The Rob Roy—simply a scotch-based Manhattan—has had its adherents for more than a century (and can even be made with a not-too-aggressive single malt such as Highland Park 12 year), and other old-timers such as the Cameron's Kick, the Mamie Taylor or the Modern Cocktail No. 2 are absolutely delicious.

The Blood and Sand is another classic scotch cocktail, in which the spirit is mixed with fresh OJ, sweet vermouth and cherry liqueur, and it's enjoying a bit of a renaissance; last weekend I spotted a Blood and Sand on a cocktail menu in an airport bar in Portland, and some craft bartenders have taken to tweaking the formula by substituting the standard blended scotch for more smoky whiskies such as Black Grouse (a blended whisky from Famous Grouse with an extra boost of Islay malt) or Ardmore, a gently peated Highland malt.

As today's bartenders and adventurous drinkers increasingly seek out assertive and ambitious flavors such as those found in mezcal and Italian amari, more original scotch whisky-based cocktails are creeping into view. Bartenders at Rickhouse in San Francisco mixed a honeyed Highland malt with apple brandy, cream and maple syrup for the Scottish Breakfast; the Black Diamond Flip—a mixture of intensely smoky Islay single malt, Cynar and a whole egg, that has a flavor akin to being swatted in the mouth with a Campari-coated club of charcoal—has been making the rounds of a number of West Coast cocktail bars; and several years ago in New York, barman Sammy Ross at Milk & Honey introduced one of the most alluring scotch whisky-based drinks I've ever encountered, the smooth and smoky Penicillin, made with a base of blended scotch and topped with a touch of Islay whisky.

I'm noticing a few new drinks based on scotch whisky on bar menus around the country, and some of them are worth trying. Have you come across a scotch whisky-based cocktail that you'd add to the "keeper" list?