Creating a classic: Speciality Drinks’ Whisky Cocktail Classic competition

14 January 2020

Speciality Drinks’ Whisky Cocktail Classic challenges the country’s bartenders to get creative and dive deep into scotch in search of a superstar cocktail

Whisky is weirdly – some might say criminally – underrepresented on cocktail lists, and three years ago the team at Speciality Drinks decided to do something about it. They started up the Whisky Cocktail Classic, a competition to get bartenders to think creatively about how to get the most out of this rich and varied category.

by Nicola Rossini, Blue Bar at The Berkeley

Glass: Highball
Garnish: Wedge of passion fruit
Method: Stir over ice.

50ml Craigellachie 13yo
20ml Golden Falernum liqueur
75ml coconut water
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

As well as having the reputation of Speciality Drinks behind it, the competition has also tapped heavy hitters like Salvatore ‘Maestro’ Calabrese and Declan McGurk, director of bars at The Savoy. ‘I’ve been in support of Speciality Drinks’ Whisky Cocktail Classic since its inception,’ says McGurk. ‘There is a great effort to bring the growth we are seeing in whisky into the hands of cocktail bartenders.’ Certainly, the bartenders are listening. Across the UK, around 100 contestants took part this year.

The rules for the third Whisky Cocktail Classic were simple: Entrants had to use no more than four ingredients (plus garnish), at least 40ml of any single malt scotch (maximum 18 years old and an ongoing release), and were not permitted any homemade ingredients. 

Following semi-finals in London and Bristol, the four finalists headed to Ziggy’s Bar in Soho’s Hotel Café Royal. Standards were high, and the scores incredibly close.

But after lengthy deliberation, the judges chose Nicola Rossini’s The Iron Bridge cocktail as the winner. A highball that lengthened Craigellachie 13yo with coconut water, it was balanced, easy to drink and very different from the other finalists’ creations.

I wanted to make a cocktail not just for people who already like whisky, but for non-whisky drinkers as well. As a bartender you have to consider everybody, not just make what you like yourself.’

Nicola Rossini, Blue Bar at the Berkeley

‘I liked that it wasn’t a classic approach,’ said judge Ago Perrone, director of mixology at The Connaught. ‘It’s enjoyable to drink, and anyone can make it.’

Will The Iron Bridge go on to become a classic cocktail? Only time will tell. But for the finalists, the winner, and for whisky itself, it was an inspiring day; a competition that should be on the radar of every bartender across the UK for next year. ‘We’re encouraging people to think critically and work their back bar,’ says Sukhinder Singh, Speciality Drinks’ founder. ‘Ingredients should be accessible and the whisky needs to shine. After all, this is done purely for our love of whisky.’

Keep an eye out for info on next year’s competition on and @speciality_drinks on Instagram.

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