Recently, a proper old-school single malt drinker was perched at the bar where I work, regaling the room with quality chat and savouring his neat whisky like it was his last. But he became wary of me when I started doing something he'd always deemed sacrilegious – making whisky cocktails.
By 'proper', I don't mean the guy in your office who spent a week in Scotland last year and now revels in parading his expertise via barroom sermons and Instagram bottle kills, either. This old mate was drinking whisky back in the dark ages – decades ago – ("before you were even born!" he pointed out).
Back when Glenfiddich and Glenmorangie were exotic drams, back before dedicated whisky bars and specialist bottle shops existed, back when ordering a whisky cocktail in Australia might get you something akin to cough medicine.
And when he saw me pour a 10 year old Islay malt whisky into a cocktail stirrer, he couldn't help himself: "What in god's name are you doing?"
It's long been argued that Scotch and cocktails don't mix. A pointed example of this mistrust can be found in David Embury's seminal The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks: 'Whisky (Scotch) is a grouchy old bachelor that stubbornly insists on maintaining its independence and is seldom to be found in a marrying mood."
Thankfully, bartenders around the world have continuously proven that Scotch can be an amenable bridegroom when mixed sympathetically. You'll now find Scotch cocktails in bars throughout Australia, and while producers have gone to great lengths to create an aged spirit that sips brilliantly on its own, that doesn't mean they're averse to us mixing whisky in cocktails – many of the distillers and blenders I've encountered over the years get a thrill when they try a ripper cocktail made with their whisky.
So, if you'd like to test the argument for yourself, here's a few riffs on some classic cocktails featuring Scotch whisky.
Brilliantly refreshing for the last days of summer.
60 ml Scotch whisky (try Highland Park 12 year old or a full bodied blended whisky like Johnnie Walker Black)
120 ml ginger beer
Half a lime
Into a tall glass, squeeze half the lime and then add ice and whisky. Top with ginger beer, stir and garnish with lime.
Rusty Nail (or Tassie Nail)
Here's an Australian take on the classic Rusty Nail. The Lark Distillery in Tasmania do a fantastic whisky liqueur, Slainte, which makes a tasty accompaniment to their bold and rich single malt.
60 ml Lark Classic Cask Single Malt
20 ml Lark Slainte
Stir ingredients with ice, and strain into a tumbler with fresh ice (preferably a big chunk). Garnish with a long lemon peel.
This is essentially a Scotch Manhattan. But you can create a completely different experience with this drink depending on the whisky you use.
60 ml blended Scotch whisky (try a rich single malt like Bunnahabhain 12 year old)
30 ml sweet vermouth
Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist or a brandied cherry.
Blood and Sand
A colleague made me a Blood and Sand with Lagavulin 16 and it totally changed my perception of the drink (I often find it too sweet). But with a richer and heavier peated whisky like Lagavulin, it strikes an intriguing balance.
30 ml Lagavulin 16 year old
20 ml freshly squeezed orange juice
20 ml Cherry Herring Liqueur
20 ml sweet vermouth
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Shake and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry.
The Penicillin was first created by famed Australian bartender Sam Ross in the mid-2000s. Back then, I think our palate for heavily peated whisky was still developing. Whereas now, many of us love the peaty stuff, so give this a try this with an Islay malt.
60 ml peated Islay single malt (try Caol Ila 12 Year Old or Port Charlotte Heavily Peated)
20 ml lemon juice
20 ml honey-ginger syrup
Pour all ingredients into a shaker. Add ice, shake and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with candied or fresh ginger.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment. His book, 'The Australian Spirits Guide', was recently published by Hardie Grant Books.
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