We may not agree on Brexit, boy bands or the ideal sub-breed of spaniel, but EVERY Imbibe reader would acknowledge that there just aren’t enough classic whisky cocktails out there. Laura Foster looks on as a quartet of bartenders rise to the challenge
Of all the talks at Tales on Tour in Edinburgh in 2017, one stood out above the rest. Titled Drambusters, it featured a panel of experts lamenting the lack of decent classic scotch cocktails in the cocktail hall of fame.
Think about it… there’s the Rob Roy, a scotch twist on a Manhattan, which doesn’t really work in comparison with its fellow American; the Blood and Sand, which is an opinion divider of a drink, with its strange mix of whisky, cherry liqueur, vermouth and orange juice; and the Penicillin, a delicious modern classic in its own right, which Ryan Chetiyawardana interestingly (and perhaps controversially) described as ‘a cold toddy with smoke in it’.
But why, when there’s such a panoply of flavours and styles to choose from in the scotch canon, is there such a dearth of options out there? There were a number of reasons suggested by the Drambusters panel in Edinburgh, which you can read more about in our report on Imbibe.com.
The team at Imbibe don’t want to focus on the problem, however. Oh no. We want to be part of the solution… part-icularly if it involves drinking shed-loads of A1 cocktails.
So we decided that we would challenge a handful of bars to team up with a whisky brand and create their own contender for the status of a new scotch classic cocktail.
To meet the requirements that would help boost a drink’s chances of ubiquity, the cocktail had to be delicious (natch) but also simple, accessible and easy to create. In other words it had to have all the factors that will help to elevate a good drink to classic cocktail status.
What resulted were four very different drinks in both look and flavour profile, but what was common amongst all of them was the fact that they started with their whisky, looking for ways to enhance its characteristics – an essential factor to consider when mixing with scotch.
So did our accomplished bartenders stick to the path of simplicity and replicability, or were their heads turned by flashy techniques and exotic ingredients? Read on to find out…
Brand: The Glenrothes
What: The Hopped Valley
Walking into the warm gloom of the basement bar at Hawksmoor Spitalfields was the ideal way to start a day of tasting whisky cocktails. Talented bar manager Johnny Muñoz had created the drink, but it was fellow (equally talented) manager Murray Drysdale who was on hand to mix the drink for the Imbibe team while Muñoz was off sunning himself in Spain.
‘My idea came from trying to make a drink that is easy to reproduce and that you can drink throughout the whole year – one that is wintery but refreshing, summery but deep in flavour,’ said Muñoz of his creation after our visit.
Taking Glenrothes Vintage Reserve and mixing it with lemon juice, Cocchi Americano, kummel and a pear and hop syrup that had been made sous-vide, it was a delicious, drinkable cocktail that ticked all the boxes that Muñoz was hoping for.
‘I didn’t want to use more than four or five ingredients,’ he said. ‘The pear works with the orchard fruit notes in the Glenrothes, the hops in the beer add depth to the flavour and the kummel adds a bit of spice with the caraway.’
‘It looks like a classic drink! I like the simple presentation with the Nick & Nora glass and the orange twist,’ said Julie Sheppard, Imbibe’s managing editor.
‘This is amazingly balanced,’ thought deputy editor Laura Foster. ‘It’s rich yet refreshing, fruity and easy-drinking with great complexity. And it really complements the Glenrothes Vintage Reserve – those orchard fruit notes in the whisky really do come through.’
Some queried how easy it would be to replicate the drink, with the homemade pear and hop syrup, but when it was explained that it could be made with a saucepan rather than sous-vide, Foster came to the drink’s defence: ‘If you look at the Penicillin, that includes a home-made ginger syrup. Most bartenders now have the knowledge to make simple syrups, as long as the ingredients are easy to source.’
THE HOPPED VALLEY
Glass: Nick & Nora
40ml Glenrothes Vintage Reserve
*Pear and hop syrup: 330ml pale ale, 330ml caster sugar, 400g pear. Sous vide for two hours at 70°C.
Entering The Mandrake, a new boutique hotel in London, feels like you’re walking into a spa, with plenty of greenery throughout the central atrium and relaxing music plinking over the sound system.
Walter Pintus heads the bar team here, and their focus is on using ingredients with health benefits in their cocktails, which was a starting point for his drink.
‘I’m trying to create a drink that’s close to the Penicillin, but also something quite healthy with a lot of properties and benefits for your body,’ he explained.
Substituting the ginger for galangal root, which cures throat inflammation, and the honey for bee pollen-infused kombucha, Pintus mixed these with Laphroaig Triple Wood, en rama sherry and an orange blossom salt solution.
The team really enjoyed the drink, but were concerned about its potential to become a classic cocktail, with questions over how easy it would be to find and use bee pollen and galangal – not to mention en rama sherry, which is released in small quantities and has a short shelf life.
‘You get strong notes of the galangal and kombucha, a real smokiness and nuttiness on the finish. This is well balanced, and the whisky isn’t overpowered, despite so many strong flavours at play,’ said Motion.
‘This has an almost fluffy texture,’ commented Foster. ‘You get all those key touchpoints of a Penicillin, but the galangal isn’t as immediately spicy as ginger – the heat slowly grows in intensity.’
‘This drink is very on-trend, with great use of hip, health-giving ingredients. But for me it makes a great signature drink for The Mandrake, with its exotic ingredients suiting the look of the hotel,’ concluded Sheppard. ‘I can’t see a bar in Macclesfield reproducing this though!’
30ml Laphroaig Triple Wood
* Take 1:1 sugar syrup, and add 150g galangal roots to 0.5 litres syrup.Heat for 20 minutes.
What: Classy Beast
Within the dramatic, circular lounge of 10 Trinity Square hotel sits the Rotunda bar, the magnificently booze-filled domain of head bartender Michal Maziarz.
‘Whisky is my favourite category. Cocktails give you a big field to play with, to explore the DNA of whisky,’ he declared, before starting to make his drink for an expectant panel.
‘I’ve created a Manhattan-like drink where we’ve added a couple of aromatics. It’s still relatively prominent and bold.’
Maziarz mixed Lagavulin 8yo – ‘an unusual young expression, which exposes the distillery character significantly’ – and mixed it with Asahi beer ‘to boost the grain flavour of the Lagavulin’ and a cloud tea and cedar wood cordial, plus orange and jasmine bitters.
Served in a coupe and accompanied by a chip of smoking cedar wood at the bottom of the glass, the chocolatey notes of the Lagavulin 8yo really sing through, with plenty of malt character and an iodine-y peat edge to boot.
‘This is lighter than you would think,’ said Imbibe news editor, Holly Motion. The magazine’s editorial assistant, Isabella Sullivan agreed, explaining, ‘It’s got a creamy mouthfeel and a warm, inviting flavour, with plenty of chocolate, honey and caramel notes.’
There was concern over the availability of the cloud tea, which is grown in the Himalayas, and which Maziarz had chosen for its light tannins, however if a more widely available substitute tea was found,
this drink would tick the boxes for easy replicability.
As Sheppard concluded, ‘I think the taste profile of this cocktail has the potential to make it a classic – it’s accessible and easy to drink. A lighter take on whisky classics.’
45ml Lagavulin 8yo
*Infuse the tea and cedar wood with hot water and sugar for five minutes.
What: Tropical Scot
‘When we saw the brief for this challenge we realised we needed to keep it really simple and easy to make,’ said bartender Craig Petrie in swanky Scarfes Bar at the Rosewood Hotel. ‘We created this drink as a team, it’s nice and refreshing, but still Talisker-forward.’
The bar team had settled on a whisky highball because ‘people can appreciate it, and it doesn’t take away from the whisky,’ Petrie reasoned.
Taking smoky, salty, spicy Talisker 10yo and pairing it with Sauternes wine, ginger liqueur – a tip of the hat to the classic flavour pairing of whisky and ginger – and carbonated coconut water, which the team had charged using a Twist ‘n Sparkle Soda Stream, the presentation of the drink was stunningly simple and effective, being served in a highball glass with a hunk of hand-carved ice and a mint sprig.
‘I’m a big lover of simplicity,’ Petrie explained, and the Imbibe team was impressed at how the flavours really complemented the whisky. ‘It’s creamy, malty, warming and not too intense or rich. The coconut water marries well with the Talisker, and you get a bit of the spice coming through from the whisky,’ said Sullivan.
The texture split opinion, however, with some enjoying the creamy mouthfeel and others thinking it wasn’t right for a highball. ‘For me the texture needs work; it’s rather oily thanks to the Sauternes and I’d expect a highball-style drink to be refreshing, although it does get fresher as it dilutes,’ said Sheppard.
The easy replicability of the drink meant it really fit the brief, with the only ‘homemade’ ingredient being the carbonated coconut water. The fact that other peated island whiskies could be swapped in would also help the drink’s quest of achieving classic status.
60ml sparkling coconut water
Photos: Justine Trickett