Thursday, 11 January 2018

Iconoclasm: A Better Whisky Makes A Better Cocktail

Don Draper
You think he only uses cheap whisky
 in cocktails?
Cocktail culture has been back in vogue ever since retro TV shows like Mad Men hit the airwaves. The origins and history of cocktails is interesting, though it's difficult to discern truth from fiction. Since most distilling was illicit in the beginning and even legitimate liquor production was often in legal limbo, the veracity of our received cocktail history is questionable. It's entirely possible that people began mixing their liquor with juices, sugars, syrups, honey, and bitters because their rum, vodka, gin or whisky was of dubious quality. We've come a long way, yet many enthusiasts are loath to use quality spirits to make a cocktail. I've fallen prey to this line of thinking at times, using only the cheapest whisky to make my drinks. It's a shame, since better ingredients almost always produce better results. Below, you'll find some of my favourite cocktail recipes along with my preferred whisky recommendations. Though my choices are not always expensive offerings, some of these recommendations are not for the faint of heart. Ye be warned !

The Old Fashioned

This one is near and dear to my heart. It's probably my favourite cocktail and I often judge the quality of a rye or bourbon by its competence in this cocktail. It's also the go-to cocktail of Don Draper and of Ron Swanson, when he isn't drinking Lagavulin. The official recipe, according to the International Bartenders Association is as follows:
  • 4.5 cl (1.5 oz) Bourbon or Rye whiskey
  • 2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 1 sugar cube
  • Few dashes plain water
  • Place sugar cube in old-fashioned glass and saturate with bitters, add a dash of plain water.
  • Muddle until dissolve. Fill the glass with ice cubes and add whiskey. Garnish with orange slice and a cocktail cherry.
There are heated debates online about fruit vs fruit rind, muddling the fruit vs using the fruit as a garnish and much much more. I'm a fan of the IBA version, but experiment to find your prefered version and let the purists argue over the details. I'm a fan of rye in my Old Fashioned (or high rye bourbons), but any bourbon is just as acceptable.
Recommended whiskies: Four Roses Single Barrel, Rittenhouse Straight Rye, Masterson's 10 Year Old Straight Rye

The Manhattan

A runner-up to the Old Fashioned in my list of personal favourites, the Manhattan calls for a more rye-forward whisky to balance out the sweet vermouth. I'm not a huge fan of bourbons in a Manhattan, as the sweetness takes over the whole drink. This is the drink of choice of Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot.

The official IBA recipe is as follows:
  • 5 cl (approx 2oz) Rye Whiskey
  • 2 cl  (approx 3/4 oz) Red (Sweet) Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.Garnish with cocktail cherry.
Recommended whiskies: Wiser's Legacy, Stalk & Barrel Rye, Knob Creek Rye

The Boulevardier

I've only recently discovered this one, but I shan't soon forget it. I've long been a fan of the Negroni, a gin-based cocktail, when I'm not enjoying whisky. An acquaintance dared ask the question: why not have both? The Boulevardier is a Negroni made with whisky instead of Gin. Brilliant !!! The easy-peasy recipe is as follows:
  • 3 cl rye or bourbon whiskey
  • 3 cl Campari
  • 3 cl Sweet Red Vermouth
  • Pour all ingredients directly into old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir gently.Garnish with half orange slice.
*Note that Campari is quite bitter (very grapefruit-esque), so you may want to start with 2 parts whisk(e)y, 1 part Campari and 1 part Sweet Vermouth. But if you like grapefruit juice and/or hoppy beers, you'll probably like the "official" version just fine.
Recommended whiskies: Lot No.40 Rye, Eagle Rare 10 Year Old, Blanton's Original

The Rusty Nail

So many great choices
So now we get to some more controversial choices. Why? These next 3 cocktails are made with scotch whisky. And using a better scotch generally yields a better cocktail. I know, scotch is expensive. But trust me when I say you won't regret using a better whisky. Traditionally, the Rusty Nail uses a blended scotch whisky, but you don't have to limit yourself. This cocktail is one of shady lawyer Saul Goodman's favourites. The recipe is:

  • 4.5 cl (approx. 1.5 oz) Scotch whisky
  • 2.5 cl Drambuie (approx. 0.8 oz)
  • Pour all ingredients directly into old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir gently. Garnish with lemon twist.
Recommended whiskies: Johnny Walker Green Label 15 Year Old Blended Malt, Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend, Highland Park 12 Year Old Single Malt

The Godfather

He'll make you a cocktail
you can't refuse
Like the Rusty Nail, this is a great digestif, that is, an after-dinner cocktail. Rumour has it this was Marlon Brando's favourite cocktail, though I can neither confirm nor deny this. The Amaretto is quite sweet, so you want to make sure your scotch is not cloyingly sweet. (though as always, you do what you want). I'm a fan of using a moderately smoky scotch for this one, as I feel the smoke of the scotch plays nicely off the sweetness from the liqueur, but any scotch will work. Here is the IBA recipe, though note that Disaronno recommends a 2:1 scotch to amaretto ratio. Experiment to find what works for you.

  • 3.5 cl Scotch
  • 3.5 cl Amaretto
  • Pour all ingredients directly into old fashioned glass filled with ice cubes.
  • Stir gently.
Recommended whiskies: Bowmore 12 Year Old Single Malt, Compass Box Peat Monster Blended Malt, Johnnie Walker Double Black

The Smoky Coke

How some people react to the Smoky Coke recipe.
Now we come to the most controversial cocktail around. A simple highball? Controversial? Yes, yes it is. Peruse any Facebook whisky group or message board and you'll find strong opinions on the smoky coke. Why? Well, as I've mentioned, single malt scotch is expensive, and many people consider it uncouth to mix it with anything, let alone the cola of the proletarian masses. Now nobody is suggesting you drink these all night, but as a single cocktail, it's really good. Don't let anyone tell you how to drink your whisky. The IBA does not have a recipe for this, so I recommend you start with the recipe below and adjust to your taste:

  • 2 oz Scotch (preferably a smoky Islay Single Malt, but a smoky blend will work too)
  • 5 oz Coca Cola
  • Pour all ingredients into a highball glass filled with ice cubes. Stir gently
Recommended whiskies: Laphroaig 10 Year Old, Lagavulin 16 Year Old, Ardbeg 10 Year Old

Any whisky can work in a cocktail. You're probably used to using cheap whisky in your cocktails, regardless of who's making them. If mixed drinks are your thing, you owe it to yourself to try using better ingredients, even if it's just to test the perceived difference. Civilization didn't get to where it is today by sticking to the tried and true. Try something new, something daring. Experiment a bit. Do it for science!

Slainte !!


  1. You've convinced me! I need to try a smokey coke!