The popular notion that Scotch is better sipped than mixed has yielded a relatively thin category of classic cocktails made with the spirit. Nonetheless, those created over the past century have shown real staying power—and with good reason.
The range of aromas and flavors presented by the spirit—from smoky and peated to bright and fruity—while undeniably great for sipping, also provide depth and dimension when mixed with supporting ingredients.
From a timeless twist on the Manhattan to a 1970s-era revival, here are five essential Scotch cocktails to know.
A Manhattan by way of Scotland, the Rob Roy simply substitutes Scotch for the expected bourbon or rye, resulting in a slightly leaner drink. First debuted at New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1897, the straightforward mixture has become one of the most recognizable within the small category of Scotch classics.
Originally created in London to commemorate a 1922 bullfighter movie of the same name, the formula for the original Blood and Sand—equal parts Scotch, Cherry Heering, orange juice and sweet vermouth—was meant to evoke, with little nuance, the colors of “blood” and “sand.” Though the tried-and-true recipe still has a number of devotees, many will argue that the four-ingredient classic is often unbalanced, prompting a number of modern bartenders to rework the historic recipe.
A mixture of the Scotch-based liqueur Drambuie and Scotch itself, the Rusty Nail has persisted on menus since the late 1930s. Though the recipe often calls for equal parts, Bobby Heugel’s modern take, which splits the base between three types of Scotch and requires only three-quarters of an ounce of Drambuie, results in an overall drier drink.
Simply Scotch sweetened with amaretto liqueur, the Godfather popped up in the 1970s, the era of “disco drinks,” and has since experienced a modern revival. In bartender Bill Brooks’ version, the Scotch-and-amaretto base remains intact, but additions of sherry and bitter amaro prevent the drink from reading as too sweet.
A hair-of-the-dog remedy from Harry Johnson’s late 19th-century Bartender’s Manual, the Morning Glory Fizz has shown the greatest staying power within the field of Scotch classics. A potent blend of Scotch and absinthe, the drink’s rough edges are smoothed over with silky egg white and a splash of soda to quell the pangs of a hangover headache. While few modern fizzes opt for a Scotch base, it plays a prominent role in Camille Razo’s darker spin on the Ramos Gin Fizz, while its whiskey brethren—bourbon and rye—are popular go-tos for similarly assertive, frothy drinks.
The Penicillin, a spicy-smoky riff on the Whiskey Sour, is not only a modern classic; it has also become a popular source for countless modern riffs. The mix of blended Scotch whisky, ginger juice, honey and lemon was created at Milk & Honey by Sam Ross. Though it was invented relatively recently, in 2005, the Penicillin’s ubiquitous name recognition is a testament to how well-traveled the cocktail has already been. “By 2014, the Penicillin was so well known that some young bartenders assumed it was an old classic from way back,” writes Robert Simonson in his book A Proper Drink.