No new drink of the twenty-first century has gone further in terms of fame than this complex, spicy, smoky turn on a Whiskey Sour. The Australian Sam Ross created it while at Milk & Honey, just a year after he emigrated to the United States from Melbourne.
“We got one of the earliest shipments of the Compass Box line in New York—Asyla, The Peat Monster, and two others,” recalled Ross. “I was playing around. I did a riff on the Gold Rush, which was one of our big sellers,” using Asyla. “Now, our ginger juice is sweetened, so it acts like a syrup. I split the sweetening between the two, the ginger and the honey. And it was great. Then I grabbed The Peat Monster—might as well play around with the smoky whiskey. I poured a float on top. That smoke stayed on the top. I preferred to never serve it with a straw. I want that smoke in the nose and that spicy sweet cocktail underneath.
“I went to bed that night not thinking much of it. Like, ‘That was a good drink.’ It wasn’t until nine months later, at Little Branch, one of our waitresses, Lucinda Sterling, she came back from a table, and they all wanted Bartender’s Choices. She said I should put a Penicillin out because every table needs to experience one of them. It wasn’t until she said that, that I was like, Oh, maybe there’s something there.”
There was something there. In 2007, Sam Ross did some extensive consultancy work in Los Angeles, planting the seed of the drink in bars there. In the years since, the Penicillin has become as close to a household word as any cocktail since the Cosmopolitan. Philip Duff said the first time he had one, it was made for him by Australian bartender Naren Young in Germany, “which gives you an idea of how international it is.”
Another measure of the bartending community’s familiarity with the potion: you can often get one at cocktail bars that don’t even have it on the menu. By 2014, the Penicillin was so well known that some young bartenders assumed it was an old classic from way back.