5 Essential Scotch Cocktails

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


[Photo: Maggie Hoffman]

Next time you're at the gym or the salon or the grocery, and someone says it's a sacrilege to mix Scotch into a cocktail, promise me you'll grab that person, take him or her out back, and...

Nah, never mind. Promise me you'll just chuckle and move on with your day. I mean, your buddy is kind of right, I guess, though maybe only superficially so. What they usually mean is, Scotch is too good to mix with other things. I don't agree with that.

Scotch is a hard ingredient to mix with, that much is true. Most cocktails that call for Scotch call for a good blend (instead of a single malt), and a good blend of Scotch has a mix of malt, smoke, heather, and herbal flavors. You don't want all those flavors to get lost, but there are quite a few great drinks that show off Scotch well.

This week, I'll provide four classic Scotch cocktails, and one that's a modern classic, and I'll describe what makes them work, and why maybe your gym or salon buddy needs to give Scotch drinks another chance.

One note: I do suggest buying a blended Scotch for these drinks, but I also suggest a robust blend. I recently re-tested a couple of these with Dewar's and, frankly, they reminded me why I'm not a fan of Dewar's; it's little too My First Scotch for my tastes, and I find that it emphasizes a sweet floral character, when what I want is something malty and with a layer of smoke. Though Dewar's might be fine for sipping on its own, these drinks want your dram to be robust.

I suggest Famous Grouse (the original); its sibling, the smokier Black Grouse; or—yes—any of the Johnny Walkers that fit your budget.

Rob Roy


[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

I'll start with the grandfather, the Rob Roy. Essentially a Scotch-based Manhattan, the Rob Roy is a reliably tasty drink, and one that's hard to screw up. I tend to order them out more often than I do Manhattans. Unless I ask the bartender for a specific whiskey for my Manhattan, I usually wind up with a cheap, sweet bourbon; the vermouth then just makes it taste cloying. With a Rob Roy, though, at least you have the Scotch providing a little extra backbone.

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Blood and Sand


[Photograph: Edsel Little on Flickr]

Thought to be named for a 1922 silent film starring Rudolph Valentino as a bullfighter who embarks on a destructive affair with a wealthy widow, the Blood and Sand is an unlikely combination of ingredients: Scotch, cherry liqueur, orange juice, and sweet vermouth. For the Scotch, pick something robust. For the liqueur, Cherry Heering's your best choice. For the juice, it might seem tempting to use something from a carton, but squeezing it fresh is a better choice. (Better writers than me have suggested using blood oranges. If you can find them, do it.)

Paul Clarke's recipe, linked below, calls for equal parts Scotch and orange juice; with all regards to Paul, I prefer a little more Scotch. Eric Felten's piece, linked above, contains my preferred proportions.

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The film, incidentally, was based on a Spanish novel called Sangre y arena, and if you're thinking that would make a great name for a Blood and Sand variant, well, you're not alone. Here's a link to a mezcal version that sounds fabulous.



[photograph: Jennifer Hess]

The Penicillin Cocktail. If you hear of this without having tasted it anywhere, you might think it's an old-time cocktail, invented perhaps shortly after Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered its namesake in 1928. You might even have the inkling to comb through the Savoy or other Prohibition-era cocktail manuals to track it down.

But no. The Penicillin was invented in New York in 2005, at Milk and Honey, by the bartender Sam Ross (who now co-helms Attaboy, in the same location as the original Milk and Honey). Ross's creation calls for blended Scotch, lemon juice, a honey-ginger syrup, and a float of a rich and peaty Islay single-malt, such as Laphroiag.

In place of the honey-ginger syrup, Paul Clarke suggests using honey syrup and a little muddled ginger. I like to grate the ginger and then use a fine-mesh tea strainer to double-strain the solid ginger bits out.

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Modern No. 2


[photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Earlier, I suggested that you seek out a robustly flavored Scotch for these cocktails. Here's the point of the article where you'll really thank me. This recipe calls for one ounce of Scotch, and two ounces of sloe gin. Trust me: if you buy a dud Scotch, this cocktail will turn cloying after about the third sip. If there were a cocktail that called out for Black Grouse, this is it.

Nevertheless, here's another splendid example of a recipe looking like a Kardashian marriage on paper, but tasting surprisingly wonderful in the glass. Provided you've chosen well at the liquor store, that is.

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Rusty Nail


[photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Perhaps your grandfather drank this combination of Scotch and Drambuie (itself a mix of Scotch, honey, herbs, and spices). Perhaps your grandmother drank them between Camels. Nevertheless, you probably think of this as an old person's drink. Doesn't have to be. Drinks with these two ingredients date to the 1930s, under a variety of names, as David Wondrich recounted for Esquire.

Though the modern version calls for equal parts, earlier versions were drier, calling for substantially more Scotch. This is where you'll start. David suggests 2 ounces Scotch to 1/2 ounce Drambuie, a 4:1 ratio. That's what I like, too. Dash some Angostura in there? Trust me, it won't hurt a thing.

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How's Yours?

Got a favorite Scotch cocktail? Tell us about it!