Drop into almost any bar, anywhere in the world and chances are you’ll see a familiar name: Drambuie. Allegedly the ‘secret elixir’ of Bonnie Prince Charlie, its recipe known only to members of the MacKinnon family, it languished in the mists of Skye until the early 1900s.
Its glory days came after the war and, up until the mid 1980s, the business was still quietly successful. Then the rot slowly set in: after-dinner liqueurs dropped out of fashion and the company began to lose its way. Some ill-judged acquisitions didn’t help.
A steady decline in sales, compounded by inexperienced management, meant that by 2001 Drambuie was losing more than £3m a year. It seemed that this proudly Scottish business, one of the few remaining in family hands, would inevitably be snapped up by one of the industry’s corporate giants.
But radical action was taken. The family relinquished day-to-day control; new, professional management arrived; the art collection, lavish company HQ and several unrelated businesses were sold off and a new strategy launched. Slowly things turned round: the bank was repaid, shareholders’ funds rebuilt and the company focussed on its core product, though not without cost and some pain. But, throughout this radical change one thing stayed constant – the secret Drambuie formula.
If you haven’t tried it, you should. Whisky liqueurs may have started life as a way of taking the edge off the 18th century’s harsh spirit, but they’ve come a long way. Drambuie is a Scotch whisky base (a healthy measure of quality single malt) infused with herbs and spices.
On its own, it works well but contemporary drinking styles suggest it makes a timeless cocktail base.
That has been central to the company’s recovery efforts. Classically, Drambuie was half of a Rusty Nail, which brings us to Drambuie 15, probably the whisky drinker’s Drambuie: it contains 100 per cent malt whisky, all aged 15 years. With significantly reduced sweetness some liken it to a ‘Rusty Nail in a bottle’.
The premium style The Royal Legacy of 1745 retails at around £130-150 (possibly less at the airport, its spiritual home) and won Whisky Magazine's 2011 award for World’s Best Whisky Liqueur. But this has been outstripped by the sensationally packaged Jacobite Collection Spirit of the ’45 which takes prices into territory previously occupied only by the rarest single malts (£3,500 in Tax Free).
But it uses exclusively 45 year old whiskies and a specially formulated spice and herb infusion, again a company secret. Having enjoyed a tiny drop of the liquid I can report that it offers rich vanilla with layers of green apples, freshly cut grass and green tomatoes, whiffs of dried fruit and spices on the nose, followed by a light citrus palate with warm honey notes and a delicious vanilla flavour wrapped in a coconut cloak. Sadly, there are just 150 bottles worldwide.
But, if this is the ultimate, the ‘gift of the Prince’ has some young pretenders snapping at its regal heels. Starting at the top, those irreverent chaps at Master of Malt have created a range of whisky liqueurs that goes up to a heady 55 Years Old which they claim to be the world’s oldest. Taking a sherry-matured single cask from a famous distillery (they were a little coy about which one) they then added a little natural sugar for sweetness, as well as some spices to round out the mouth feel. It’ll set you back £1,000 so probably isn’t for drinking with your next game of strip billiards.
If that breaks the bank, Master of Malt carried on with their liqueur experiments and now offer a range from 10 to 40 years of age, again all based on that Speyside single malt. Perhaps my favourite was the 21 Years Old, full of lively orange and grapefruit character but with plenty of traditional whisky notes coming through.
While these are classic liqueurs, that is to say they employ some sugar or other sweetener, Compass Box’s Orangerie is described as a ‘whisky infusion’ because no sugar is employed. It relies on a blended whisky base, to Compass Box’s usual demanding standards, into which they infuse zesty fresh orange peel and spices. At first, the dry, slightly bitter taste is a shock because the nose is dominated by citrus notes. But it just gets better and better, especially when served over some ice. Your tongue goes into paroxysms of perverted ecstasy –whisky isn’t supposed to taste like this!
That, of course, is because it isn’t whisky anymore; not Scotch whisky anyway. But Irish and American brands have been slightly more cavalier and brought us some boldly flavoured expressions which are bound to divide opinion.
Today we can find Jim Beam Honey and Beam Red Stag (that has black cherry in it) from the United States; Bushmills Irish Honey and the cheerfully-named Mickey Finn Apple Whiskey Liquor, also from Ireland.
Soon, no doubt, there will be more as fevered marketing departments rush to catch up with the latest gimmick to engage with younger drinkers.
No-one could accuse these of being particularly subtle or complex flavours. They are as far removed from Drambuie 15 or Orangerie as they could be while still remaining in the category but at least they represent some innovation and an attempt by whisky to turn back the encroaching tide of vodka (now there is the spawn of Satan).
These bottles, let’s be honest, probably aren’t for the average Whisky Magazine reader. They’re best drunk fast, over lots of ice, to the accompaniment of loud music and raucous laughter, perhaps a game of strip billiards.
Actually, come to think of it, you never know, sounds fun.