WTF Is Wrong with the Blood and Sand Cocktail?

A time-honored Scotch-based classic, the Blood and Sand has been around since the 1920s. But by modern standards, it's a mess. Kara Newman on how today's bartenders are finding ways to fix it.

Theoretically the Blood and Sand cocktail is a time-honored classic. In actuality, it’s a murky mess that’s one of the canon’s more infamous scourges. 

“I honestly do not understand why the Blood and Sand is part of the modern-day cocktail lexicon,” says Ryan Casey, bar manager of The Living Room, a newly-opened bar within the Dewberry Charleston hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. “I’ve never put it on the menu. I’ve never ordered it on purpose.”

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 liqueur, orange juice and sweet vermouth, which first appeared Harry Craddock’s 1930 The Savoy Cocktail Bookhas its roots in metaphor; the red Cherry Heering is said to represent the “blood” and orange juice, the “sand.”

The problem, however, is how easily it can fall out of balance. “It ends up tasting like an orange juice with alcohol in it, kind of like a Screwdriver,” explains Casey. So while, miraculously, it’s managed to stand the test of time, the question now is how to fix it. 

Some say the problem is the proportions—that the Scotch and sweet vermouth should outweigh the other two components, creating a slightly sweeter Rob Roy-style variation. Others complain it’s the orange juice that’s problematic: it’s too acidic, the texture is too thick, the bright hue turns muddy when mixed and so on. (This, interesting enough, is one of the gripes launched at the Ward Eight, another notoriously troubled classic cocktail that has itself recently undergone a makeover in its hometown.)

As a result, many dial down the orange juice or drop it altogether. Sometimes, the effort to remove the OJ results in odd contortions—swapping in everything from alternative citrus (blood orange, lemon or grapefruit juices) to red wine or even pureed beets to varying degrees of success. One of the more successful OJ solutions, dubbed the Blood & Sanguinello, came by way of William & Grant brand ambassador Charlotte Voisey, who swapped in Solerno orange liqueur, plus grapefruit and lemon juices, pleasantly balancing the tart and sweet elements of the drink.

“If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.”

Casey’s solution, however, might be the most elegant: He uses no juice at all. Instead, in his Ichor and Glass he calls on a blend of two orange liqueurs (including Compass Box’s Orangerie, which has a Scotch whisky base), for a stirred, complex, spirit-forward version of the classic, which leans more toward the aforementioned Rob Roy.

“The challenge was figuring out a way to remove the silly ingredient that doesn’t make sense to me—the orange juice—and [replace it with] things that do make sense,” he explains.

Yet, while many bartenders are hustling to build a better Blood and Sand, some say it’s not the recipe that’s the problem; it’s bartending technique that needs to be improved to make the drink work. “If the Scotch isn’t too smoky and the orange juice is fresh squeezed, it’s great,” says T.J. Vytlacil, founder and advisory board member of private cocktail club Blood & Sand in St. Louis.

Vytlacil remains a staunch defender of the Blood and Sand; the equal parts classic is the number-one seller at the eponymous bar, where it’s made with Lismor Scotch—a gentle, un-smoky Speyside single malt—Dolin sweet vermouth, fresh orange juice and Cherry Heering. But he also offers 10 variations on the menu, including the luscious Silver and Sand, made with egg white and ginger- and lemon-infused Dewar’s.

A final tip from Vytlacil: If your Blood and Sand is lackluster, it might be because you’re not shaking it vigorously enough. “Shake the crap out of it so you get a good froth on it,” he insists. It shouldn’t require as much effort as shaking a Ramos Gin Fizz, but you’ll have to put some muscle into it. “You should definitely break a sweat making a Blood and Sand. If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.”

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