Typically described as a Manhattan made with blended Scotch instead of bourbon or rye, the Rob Roy is not an obscure drink by any means. And yet, it has never quite captured the same devotion as its sister classic has. Even Anu Apte-Elford, proprietor of Seattle’s Rob Roy, which is named for the drink, admits that it’s a drink she had to learn to love.
“I did not like it. I did not like it one bit,” says Apte-Elford, recalling first tasting a Rob Roy at age 25. Though she now considers the drink to be an “unsung hero” in the canon of classics, Apte-Elford admits that its construction can be problematic.
The long-running origin story of the Rob Roy is that it was created at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1897 in honor of the debut of the Reginald De Koven operetta, named for the Scottish folk hero, Robert Roy MacGregor. But in 2017, writer and historian David Wondrich dug even deeper, uncovering a possible alternative history that places the drink’s creation at around the same time, but at a Hoboken, New Jersey, bar called Duke’s House.
Like the Manhattan, the Rob Roy can take many forms depending on the whiskey, vermouth and variety of bitters used—something that can pose a challenge to bartenders and drinkers unfamiliar with the base spirit. “Most bars don’t give their ‘well’ Scotch much consideration, and guests haven’t been educated to know which Scotch will make a really good Rob Roy,” says Apte-Elford.
Among the first decisions to make when constructing the drink is deciding which spirit to use, as the choice between a smoky Islay or a fruitier Highland Scotch can have a drastic effect on the cocktail’s flavor profile. What’s more, it will often dictate the brand of vermouth employed, which can make or break the drink. Whereas a peated Scotch might favor a fuller bodied, spicier vermouth such as Carpano Antica, a more mellow, Lowland Scotch might favor something softer and more subtle.
“Because of the variety of Scotch styles available and the incredible differences in flavor profiles you can get between different brands, every Rob Roy variation is so different—and, in my humble opinion, an improvement on the classic recipe,” says Apte-Elford.
For the past three years, she’s offered three distinct takes on the Rob Roy, each made with a different Scotch in the archetypal two-to-one ratio of spirit to vermouth. Ranging from the classic (made with Bank Note 5 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky, Cinzano, Angostura bitters and a lemon twist) to “Bold” and “Elegant,” these mirrored variations show just how versatile the cocktail can be.
Made with peated Laphroaig 10 Year Old, the Bold Rob Roy gets an assist from an ounce of Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth and two dashes of Angostura bitters for an especially full-bodied take. “Laphroiag is one of my all-time favorites so I knew I wanted to use that as a base, and I would need a strong, robust vermouth that could tango with it,” says Apte-Elford.
The Elegant, meanwhile, is based on two ounces of Feathery Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, an intense, 100 percent malt blend that’s matured in sherry casks. She pairs the Scotch with the “soft, round and elegant” Dolin Rouge. When it came to bitters, she chose to highlight the “blossom-like aroma” of the Feathery, pairing it with the bar’s housemade apple bitters.
Though each of these variations builds on the same base recipe, Apte-Elford explains that the result is three remarkably different drinks. Owing to the vast spectrum of flavors found in Scotch, and to the diversity of vermouths on the market, the trio of recipes is a testament to how versatile this classic cocktail can actually be.
“The difference between the Bold and the Elegant Rob Roys we offer are great examples of that,” says Apte-Elford. “If I served these side by side to a guest, they might not even know the drinks are from the same blueprint.”