Tales on Tour: the problem with scotch cocktails

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Here’s a quick pop quiz for you. How many bottles of scotch do you have on your back bar? And how many cocktails do you list that are made with it? Unless you’re a specialist bar such as Black Rock, we’re going to hazard a guess with that last question and say two at most.

Scotch whisky’s underrepresentation in cocktails was the subject of Drambusters, which won our award for the best seminar at Tales on Tour in Edinburgh. The panel, featuring Bacardi’s global malts ambassador Georgie Bell, Mike Aikman of Bramble, Lucky Liquor Co and The Last Word, Fresh Kills’ Tom Walker and Ryan Chetiyawardana tackled the subject in a no-holds-barred chat.

‘Probably half of your back bar is whisky, but it’s not being utilised,’ declared Bell. ‘On the odd occasion you’ll mix with it, but that’s not enough.’

She then went on to explain that scotch may be the second biggest spirits category by volume and the biggest by value, but in the top 50 cocktails of last year, there were only three made with it: the Rob Roy, Blood & Sand and the Penicillin.

Then the games really began, with the panel debating the merits, or lack thereof, within each of those drinks, and looking at the common pitfalls of each.

The ‘holy trinity’?

When mixing with scotch, one of the most popular ingredients to combine it with – if not the most popular – are vermouth and bitters. Bell discussed The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, saying that in a compendium of 265 cocktails, only nine were scotch-based, and all of them called for the ‘holy trinity’ of whisky, vermouth and bitters. The Rob Roy is a case in point.

‘The Rob Roy is a terrible drink,’ argued Aikman. ‘It’s too one-dimensional. It needs something else.’

So are bartenders getting stuck in particular patterns of mixing behaviour that perhaps don’t benefit the category? The panel certainly seemed to think so.

‘It’s a shame, something that scotch could call its own, it doesn’t,’ said Walker. ‘For instance, the Rob Roy is a Scotch Manhattan. The only drink it can really claim is the Blood & Sand.’

One size fits all

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the use of scotch in cocktails is the fact that a ‘one size fits all’ recipe doesn’t work for a category with such a big spectrum of flavours. A 50ml/25ml Rob Roy made with big, meaty Craigellachie is going to come out completely different to fruity, approachable Glenfiddich, and who’s to say that either of them will work in those measurements with your chosen vermouth anyway?

‘People aren’t tailoring the drinks to what whiskies they’re using. They’re just following a formula,’ said Chetiyawardana.

As a case in point, one of the most divisive drinks discussed by the panel was the Blood & Sand. Its mix of scotch, Cherry Heering liqueur and orange juice boasted more detractors than supporters, but Aikman thought it merely required a rethink, keeping the whisky used in mind. ‘I think the Blood & Sand can work if you mess with the measurements. Equal measures really doesn’t work,’ he said.

Where there’s smoke…

Another common scotch cocktail pitfall is that of using peated whisky in your drinks.

‘Don’t just use Scotch in a cocktail to bring in a smoky element. We have 115 distilleries in Scotland, and only a handful make peaty whiskies,’ said Bell.

Chetiyawardana agreed: ‘If bartenders are only reaching for the smoky whisky for cocktails, they’re perpetuating the myth. I love Sam Ross [creator of the Penicillin cocktail], but The Penicillin is really a cold toddy with smoke in it.’

Looking ahead…

So if bartenders are keen to look beyond the smoke, the ‘holy trinity’ and to stop using set drinks measurements for whatever scotch they’re using in a cocktail, then what should they be doing?

‘I don’t think there’s anything that doesn’t work with Scotch,’ argued Aikman, as he showcased a delicious whisky twist on a Bramble (see box).

‘You need to be able to apply a delicacy with it, because it’s so complex,’ said Chetiyawardana.

Yet the most pertinent words came from someone who wasn’t even there. Bell brought up a Craig Harper quote: ‘[Whisky should be used in] cocktails where the whisky actually matters.’

The gauntlet has been thrown down. Is your bar prepared to take on the challenge?

In the mix

Looking for cocktail inspiration beyond the ‘holy trinity’ or the realms of peaty whisky? Tom Walker and Mike Aikman showcased two such drinks during the seminar…

The Montgomery
By Tom Walker

‘This is a Scotch Old Fashioned for beginners. I wanted to play on the chocolate and orange notes of the whisky,’ said Walker.

Glass: Rocks
Garnish: Orange twist
Method: Stir over ice and serve.

57ml Aberfeldy 12yo
12.5ml Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
3 dashes chocolate bitters

Dramble
By Mike Aikman

‘We wanted to show the versatility of switching Scotch whisky into a white spirit drink. You still get the complexity of the whisky; we’ve just adjusted the measurements,’ explained Aikman.

Glass: Rocks
Garnish: Blackberries
Method: Build ingredients over ice and float the Braemble liqueur on top.

50ml Craigellachie 13yo
20ml fresh lemon juice
10ml gomme (1:1)
7.5ml Braemble liqueur
1 dash Boker’s Bitters

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Laura Foster

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