Poor, unloved Drambuie. Typically swept aside into the “cordials” corner of drink menus, this spiced, whisky-based liqueur is the most likely to have an inferiority complex.
Objectively speaking, Drambuie isn’t the problem. Like most herbal liqueurs, it hits all the right sweet and spiced notes. But it’s lost some cachet, thanks in part to the stodgy reputation of the Rusty Nail, a two-ingredient cocktail made with blended Scotch—and one of very few classics that call for Drambuie by name.
According to the producer, which was acquired by William Grant & Sons in 2014, Drambuie’s heritage dates back to 1745, beginning as the “personal elixir” for Scottish royal Bonnie Prince Charlie, who “drank a few drops each day for strength and vitality.” Without disclosing the recipe, they describe the liqueur’s key components as “aged Scotch whisky, heather honey, herbs and spices,” and note that the base spirit is infused with cloves and saffron.
Today, Drambuie is most likely to be spotted flanking Scotch in cocktails, usually in drinks that wink at the structure of the Rusty Nail. Such is the case in Bar Goto’s Rusty Ringo, a modernized spin on the formula that dials back the Scotch and adds a calvados base, finished with a half ounce of Drambuie. In Jesse Duré’s Urbanite, the same measure of Drambuie appears alongside two ounces of Scotch plus grapefruit juice, coffee extract and club soda in a drink she describes as “a Scotch and soda variation on a Rusty Nail.”
“I love Drambuie in general given its inherent rounded sweetness and body,” says Duré. “It most often balances drinks to where no extra sugar is needed.”
More unusually, Drambuie makes the occasional surprise appearance in tropical drinks as a spiced sweetener, a role similar to that of allspice dram or velvet falernum. In his book, Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cate shows just how well it plays in a rum sour, adding a full ounce to his Kingston Palaka, where it supplements an ounce and a half of Jamaican rum. Portland’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler even gives Drambuie top billing in his tiki-esque Kingston Club cocktail, alongside pineapple and lime juices.
“Many herbal liqueurs do well in tropical drinks,” notes Morgenthaler, who considers Drambuie to be “in the same family as Bénédictine, yellow Chartreuse [and] Galliano.”
While it’s unlikely that many bartenders will recommend sipping Drambuie on its own, there’s an exception to every rule—with some tweaks. Created for a cocktail competition, Orlando Franklin McCray’s milk-washed take is further infused with both orange and lemon juices for a brighter, ready-to-use variation, which he chills and tops with Champagne. But McCray suggests that the Milk-Washed Drambuie can be enjoyed on its own, too. Poured over ice, for dilution, it might be the most straightforward and modern way to enjoy this otherwise “throwback” liqueur.