Guide: Everything you need to know to make great whisky cocktails at home

Scotch whisky cocktails are in vogue, but you don't need to go out to drink them
By Alex Mennie
It is gratifying to see that the long-held but erroneous belief that it is some kind of sin to mix single malts with water, ice or anything more flavoursome is finally abating. While there may still be holdouts in remote corners of the planet, it seems the majority is now in agreement that whisky is the drinker’s to do with as they please. Similarly, there is now consensus that whisky cocktails can be fun, long and fruity – no longer is whisky relegated to the ‘stirred down and brown’ cocktails of old.

That this growing acceptance has coincided with the resurgence of the ‘craft’ (i.e. carefully made) cocktail movement cannot be pure chance, and it is a fact that many of the world’s best bartenders are reaching for the higher shelves of the back bar to create fantastic cocktails from some of the most complex spirits available to them.

Consequently, it is possible that Whisky Magazine readers have already enjoyed such a cocktail on a night out and considered taking some steps in that direction at home. After all, if nothing is stopping the world’s best bartenders from mixing cocktails with single malts or making whisky cocktails that are fun and fruity, then surely even regular whisky lovers can do the same at home. For some, it is the fear that an arsenal of equipment or a library of instructions are required to do justice to those fine whiskies sitting on the shelf. To those readers: fear not, answers are in sight.

While weighted shakers, finely calibrated Japanese jiggers and cut crystal glassware will certainly add a sense of occasion to home drinking, there is no need to splash out when the humble kitchen drawer should already have suitable alternatives.

  • No Shaker? Use a jam jar, bottle or other container with a lid.
  • No Mixing Glass? Any jug or vase will do here.
  • No Bar Spoon? In the absence of a glinting 40cm spoon, a single chopstick or skewer will work just as well.
  • No Measures? Consistency in measuring is key, so use a shot glass, tablespoon (15ml) and a teaspoon (5ml).
  • No Strainer? A slotted spoon or a fork will hold the ice back when pouring, and a kitchen sieve will work in place of a fine strainer for drinks that include fresh juice.

    Core & DIY Ingredients

    Add the solid to the liquid and seal in a jar. Leave to combine for a few hours to a few days (taste regularly to get optimal results), strain out the solids and enjoy. Provided the ABV is above 20%, the alcohol should preserve the fruit and delay spoiling.

    Sherbet Ingredients:
  • 350g lemon juice
  • 175g sugar
  • 10g grated lemon peel (no pith)

    Place the citrus peel and sugar in a jar, seal, shake and leave overnight. Next day, add lemon juice, re-seal and shake until the sugar has dissolved. Keep refrigerated for up to four days.

    Most syrups are built on equal parts (1:1) ratio, but some recipes will call for a richer ratio of two parts sugar to one part water. Measure ingredients here by weight – heat the water in a pan until boiling, then remove from the heat and add the sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and then keep refrigerated in a sterilised bottle for up to a month. Flavour syrups by adding herbs, spices, fruit or fruit juice while the syrup is still warm. Strain any solids out before bottling.

    Heather and Lavender Syrup: Combine 350ml water, 100ml mild honey and 10g dried heather flowers in a saucepan. Bring to boil at a medium temperature and leave boiling for five minutes. Remove from the heat and add 4.5g of dried lavender flowers, cover and leave to cool before straining. Keep refrigerated for up to two weeks.

    Honey Raisin Syrup: First, make a honey syrup – combine three parts honey to one part water (by weight) over a low heat. Stir until thoroughly combined. Add one part raisins to the honey syrup and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir and gently muddle the raisins. Keep refrigerated for up to four weeks.

    Ice: Often overlooked, but one of the most important ingredients in any drink. The best ice is fresh, hard, clear, cold, clean and ‘dry’ (as opposed to ‘wet’ ice that has started to melt, which can lead to over-diluted drinks). Aspire to use cubes at least one inch cubed in size, always use fresh ice for each drink and don’t skimp. Pack as much into the shaker or mixing glass as is possible to ensure proper chilling and dilution.

    Egg white: Many traditional cocktails, such as sours, call for the use of egg white. However, vegan alternatives are available that do just as good a (if not better) job, such as bottled foaming agents like Foamee or aquafaba (chickpea water). The latter can be found in most supermarkets, packed in long-life cartons, or simply drained from a tin of chickpeas.


    Whisky and soda water have been combined ever since Johann Jacob Shweppe first commercialised his blend of bicarbonate of soda and water. The Japanese have elevated this serve to an art form by applying meticulous precision to every element, and, as a result, Japanese whiskies such as Nikka From The Barrel or Hibiki Harmony may be the first to come to mind.

    Due to the slight minerality of traditional soda water, however, this combination also comes into its own with peat-forward blends (such as Black Bottle, Johnnie Walker Green Label or Compass Box Great King Street) or young Islay single malts such as Lagavulin 8 Years Old.

    Whisky Highball Ingredients:
  • 60ml whisky
  • 120ml soda water

    Pour the whisky into a highball glass and add as much ice as the glass will hold before topping with chilled soda water. Stir – the Japanese allow three and a half rotations, as any more risks dissipating the bubbles too quickly.

    To take a highball to the next level, there is a world of liqueurs (such as the King’s Ginger, Mr Black’s coffee or St Germain elderflower) that can add another dimension. When considering these, think of a note in the whisky that could be complemented or enhanced, like the orange notes of The Glenmorangie 10 Years Old or Glenglassaugh Revival, perhaps, or try one of these advanced recipes:

    Green Tea Highball

  • 60ml whisky
  • 60ml green tea (chilled)
  • Soda water

    Pour the whisky and green tea into the highball glass and add as much ice as the glass will hold before topping with chilled soda water. Stir.

    West Coast Highball

  • 40ml blended whisky
  • 10ml peated whisky
  • 15ml Drambuie
  • 10ml honey syrup (1:1)
  • 25ml fresh lemon juice
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • 50ml heather and lavender syrup
  • Soda water

    Build all ingredients (except soda) in a highball glass. Add as much ice as the glass will hold before topping with chilled soda water. Stir.


    The Whisky Sour has long been the preserve of bourbon or rye, but with citrus notes present in a number of fine single malts and blended whiskies, there’s no reason not to reach for one of these when making a sour at home.

    The light floral notes of Cutty Sark are a good place to start, but more depth can be added by switching to an Aberfeldy 12 Years Old for a richer honey note. Alternatively, take this recipe in a more saline and smoky direction through the use of something like a Talisker 10 Years Old.

    Whisky Sour

  • 50ml whisky
  • 25ml fresh lemon juice
  • 15ml sugar syrup (1:1)
  • 1 fresh egg white (or foaming agent)
  • 2 dashes bitters

    Shake all ingredients with ice. If using the egg white, strain back into the shaker and ‘dry shake’ again without ice, for texture. Strain into a chilled rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a slice of lemon.

    To upgrade a sour, one can play with the fruit juice: lime and mint make for a great alternative recipe, while using infusions can make things even more complex. Most home kitchens likely contain a range of ingredients (such as herbs, spices or fruit) that can be infused into whisky to create new twists on old favourite recipes.

    Chamomile Sour

  • 50ml chamomile-infused whisky*
  • 25ml fresh lemon juice
  • 12.5ml sugar syrup (1:1)
  • 25ml egg white (or foaming agent)
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

    Shake all ingredients with cubed ice. If using the egg white, strain back into the shaker and ‘dry shake’ again without ice, for added texture. Strain into a chilled rocks glass over ice and garnish with a handful of chamomile flowers.

    Peach Sherbet Sour
    By Matthew Galloway at Homeboy, Islington

  • 50ml Irish whiskey (Kilbeggan, Slane, Green Spot or Teeling work well)
  • 25ml lemon sherbet
  • 10ml peach liqueur

    Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass.


    A venerable old timer of the cocktail world, this is another recipe that has long been made with bourbon or rye. Given that it requires just sugar and bitters, however, it is also a solid stage upon which to let a Scotch whisky hold court. Choosing a whisky that plays well with cocktail bitters is key here. If mixing with supermarket staple Angostura, for example, consider whiskies that will riff off its top notes of clove and cinnamon.

    A blended malt such as Monkey Shoulder or blended Scotch like Chivas Regal 12 Years Old will never be bad choices, but Glen Moray Elgin Classic or the light peat and sherry notes of Highland Park 12 Years Old will also work very well. For a more luxurious, smoky serve, consider Laphroaig 10 Years Old, which pairs exceptionally well with chocolate bitters.

    Old Fashioned

  • 1tsp sugar syrup (or to taste)
  • 60ml whisky
  • 2 dashes bitters
  • Twist of orange peel

    Stir sugar syrup and bitters to combine. Add 30ml of the chosen whisky and a handful of ice. Stir for 1 minute. Add a further 30ml of whisky and stir for a minute. Strain into a rocks glass over ice. Garnish with a twist of orange peel.

    To tinker with an Old Fashioned, the sugar syrup can be switched out for an infused version, the cocktail bitters can be switched to more exotic versions, or a dash of a liqueur can enter the mix. Maraschino, absinthe or Benedictine are great bottles to have on hand, as they can also ‘upgrade’ a Manhattan.

    Improved Whisky Cocktail

  • 60ml whisky
  • Teaspoon sugar syrup (or to taste)
  • Teaspoon Maraschino liqueur
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1 dash absinthe

    Stir together the sugar syrup, Maraschino, bitters and absinthe. Add the whisky and ice, and stir for 60 seconds. Strain into a tumbler and garnish with lemon or orange peel.

    Cold Girl Fever
    By Devon Tarby at Death & Co, New York

  • 50ml blended whisky
  • 10ml Laphroaig 10 Years Old
  • Teaspoon raisin honey syrup
  • 2 dashes bitters

    Stir all ingredients with ice then strain into a tumbler over fresh ice. Garnish with orange and lemon peel.