In Search of the Ultimate Rob Roy

We asked 10 of America's best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Rob Roy—and then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.

The Rob Roy may be the least controversial classic cocktail out there. Does anyone really get worked up about the simple mixture of two parts Scotch, one part sweet vermouth and a couple dashes of bitters? 

This state of affairs doesn’t owe only to the drink’s sheer simplicity; there are plenty of simple classic cocktails (Martini, Daiquiri, Old-Fashioned, etc.), the ins and outs of which people will debate into the wee hours. Even the Rob Roy’s sister cocktail, the steady-as-she goes Manhattan, invites a few points of contention—most notably bourbon or rye.

The Rob Roy’s peaceful existence may, instead, owe to its general failure to ascend to the top tier of classics. It will always be a “Manhattan with Scotch,” a perennial runner-up in the mixed-drink pecking order. Even the judging panel recently assembled by PUNCH to sample through a blind tasting of 10 Rob Roys, drawn from bartenders around the United States, admitted that they preferred other similar drinks to the cocktail in question. PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette found the Manhattan more “crave-able.” Paul McGee, co-owner of Lost Lake in Chicago, preferred a Bobby Burns. And Joaquín Simó, of Pouring Ribbons in Manhattan, thought a perfect Rob Roy (with the vermouth portion split between sweet and dry) a better expression of the drink.

Given the above, one had to wonder what the panel was left to discuss, and what, exactly, they were looking for in a Rob Roy. But Tom Macy, the co-owner of Clover Club, who prepared the competing cocktails that day, offered what he thought was the central question where modern Rob Roys are concerned. “Is this drink going to be a lighter Scotch Manhattan or more of a vehicle for Scotch [to shine]?” Macy thought the latter route was preferable.

While all agreed that the drink still retained a distinctly Don Draper aura—1950s tailoring, hotel-bar ordering—McGee thought the cocktail revival of the past 15 years had ushered in an era of greater subtlety, one that would favor a more delicate expression of the drink. “I think it’s a more balanced, lighter cocktail now,” he said. “It is more nuanced.”

The Rob Roy—which takes its name from Rob Roy, a popular operetta of 1894 about the Scottish folk hero of that name—has enjoyed nearly a century and a quarter of name-brand recognition. Its origin city and author, as with so many cocktails, remain in question. Persistent stories connect it to two major Manhattan hotels in the final years of the 1800s—the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria—though some recent scholarship points to a bar and bartender in Hoboken, New Jersey. Wherever it came from, it was drunk far and wide by the turn of the 20th century.

The drink remained a pretty predictable character for the next 100 years. Around the mid-aughts, however, young bartenders, looking to give the drink an upgrade (and not particularly concerned with their boss’ bottom line) began pouring pricier Scotches—including single malts—into the mix, leading to a bolder, brasher cocktail. The panel spotted a few such examples among the competitors.

“This is a Rob Roy you would get in a cocktail bar 10 years ago,” said McGee, sampling a particularly smoky, intense specimen. (It was later revealed that the drink was made with Talisker 10-year, a notably peated bottling.) As products of the modern drinking era, the panelists were not opposed to using a single malt in the mix.

That open-mindedness served the judges well—of 10 competing drinks, only two shared a choice of Scotch. Moreover, single malts outnumbered blended Scotches; and one drink didn’t have Scotch at all, but a Japanese whisky. Vermouth selections, too, were all over the map. And bitters ranged from Angostura to orange, cherry, apple and Peychaud’s. The most common garnishes were a cherry or orange twist. All were served up except one, which came in a rocks glass over one large cube, inciting brief confusion at the tasting table.

The winning drink came from the man mixing the cocktails himself, Tom Macy. (He cast no vote in the blind tasting.) A clear favorite, as well as a true exemplar of the modern Rob Roy style, his was composed of 2 ounces of Highland Park 12-year, 1 ounce of Carpano Antica vermouth, two dashes of Angostura bitters and a cherry garnish. The drink found wide favor upon first sip. It was on the light side, but had good body and a touch of smoke. “I would pick that out blindfolded as a Rob Roy,” declared Simó.

There was a tie for second place, shared by Anu Apte, owner of the Rob Roy bar in Seattle, and Andy Bixby of the whiskey-focused Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C. Apte mixed 2 ounces of The Feathery blended Scotch, 1 ounce of Dolin sweet vermouth and, unexpectedly, three dashes of apple bitters. There was no garnish. The light, fruity mixture fooled Simó into thinking he was enjoying one of his preferred perfect Rob Roys.

Bixby’s version, on the other hand, called for 2 ounces of Glenmorangie 10-year, a Highland single malt, 1 ounce of Cocchi di Torino vermouth, two dashes of Regan’s orange bitters and one dash of Angostura bitters. An orange twist was expressed over the surface of the drink and discarded, while a cherry garnish completed the picture. The orange scent and flavor came through strongly in the cocktail (the choice of Glenmorangie, a light, fruity Highland Scotch which often offers orange notes on the nose, doubtless helped in this), which the judges found rich, with marzipan notes.

Also finding favor with certain judges were the recipes of Chip Tyndale, of Dutch Kills in Queens, N.Y., and the Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, Oregon. Tyndale used 2 ounces of Aberlour 12-year-old, 1 ounce of Carpano Antica, two dashes of Angostura, cherry garnish and orange twist, expressed and tossed. Because of the Carpano, the vermouth was very prominent in the drink; otherwise it was textbook. Multnomah, like Macy, asked for 2 ounces of Highland Park 12-year, 1 ounce of Punt e Mes and a dash of Angostura. The Punt e Mes gave the result a heavier baking spice flavor.

The tasting left the panel with the impression that the Rob Roy, while still not destined for the spotlight, holds a respectable place in today’s bar world. It may not inspire debate but, given the renditions sampled that day, it ought to inspire more orders.

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