It wasn’t a neat pour of a precious single malt but a cocktail that drew bartender Nick Brown to Scotch. More specifically, it was the Penicillin, a modern-classic variation on the Whiskey Sour based on a core of mellow blended Scotch, with a float of smoky Laphroaig.
“[It] made me fall in love with the spirit,” recalls Brown, now head bartender at The Spaniard in New York. “Now it’s what I drink more than anything else.”
Since its debut in 2013, the Penicillin has become one of the country’s most-requested—and riffed on—modern cocktails. And it’s not alone. In the last few years, a number of bartenders have created drinks inspired by the Scotch’s wide range of expressions—from fruity to spicy to smoky, or a mix of all of the above.
“Scotch runs the gamut in a way that other spirits don’t,” says Brown. “It’s such a big, robust, awesome category, ranging from super smoky Scotches to more delicate ones, based on region or presence or lack of peat.”
Despite the perception that it only equals rare, pricey drams that are too precious to mix, Scotch can be both mixable and reasonably priced. To underscore this point, the U.K. government’s Food is GREAT campaign is working with the industry to challenge the notion in the U.S. and beyond.
“The way Scotch works in cocktails is pretty amazing,” says Maxime Belfand, head bartender for New York’s Saxon + Parole. “It mixes well with a variety of ingredients so you can really see the spirit evolve into something somewhat unexpected.” He favors using Scotch in stirred drinks or shaken with citrus, as in The Fleming, a riff on the Penicillin that calls on the addition of smoked salt and fig liqueur to a mix of blended and peated Scotches.
“At Saxon + Parole, we find a lot of guests who claim to not like Scotch but really enjoy Scotch cocktails,” says Belfand, dubbing a drink like the Pencillin or his The Fleming as a “gateway into Scotch obsession.”
Bartenders have also used the Rob Roy, arguably the most famous Scotch classic, as a point of inspiration. That drink (essentially a Manhattan that swaps rye or bourbon for blended Scotch) gets an update at Sunday in Brooklyn, where head bartender Brian Evans layers whisky with spiced liqueurs and rich Madeira for his Moon Watcher.
“Scotch provides a toasty warmth unlike any other spirit when paired with fresh fruit or fruit liqueurs, whether it’s in a context of a modified Rob Roy-style cocktail or something tiki-inspired,” says Evans. “I created Moon Watcher as sort of a Rob Roy for the holiday season.”
While some Scotches contain just a small amount of peat, offering a faint smoky exhale, others are powerful, like Lagavulin and Caol Ila, which are prized for their super-smoky profiles.
Johnny Swet of Brooklyn’s Grand Republic Cocktail Club is among those who love the smoky notes that peated Scotch can provide. “The complex peat notes can stand up to multiple flavors being mixed together in a cocktail,” he says. “The Scotch is still there, standing out among the other flavors, and cannot be buried.” One of his drinks, the Super Drunk Uncle, employs a versatile build that can showcase either peated or unpeated Scotch alongside Drambuie, a honey- and spice-flavored, Scotch-based liqueur.
In addition to strong and stirred drinks, like the coffee-scented, film noir-inspired Quilty at Slowly Shirley, Scotch also has a place in drinks that you might find on the dessert table. Consider, for example, the Godfather IV, from The Spaniard’s Brown, which softens the whisky with small amounts of amaretto and walnut liqueur. This drink, inspired by the classic Godfather cocktail, is made in a nuanced style that could easily serve as an introduction to the category. Still, Brown notes, in this cocktail, “Scotch is the main event.”
Scotch Cocktails for the Modern Drinker