Is it the real thing?

Whisky and cola? Ian Wisniewski takes us in to unchartered waters
By Ian Wisniewski
It’s like a rite of passage. We grow up drinking cola, accompanied by ice and lemon, but after reaching legal drinking age we can enjoy it with some other, more adult accompaniments.

As a universal mixer, cola partners various spirits and whiskies. Tequila and cola, for example, is the most popular way to drink the national spirit in Mexico, where it’s known as caballa negro (‘black horse’). Meanwhile, rum and cola is an international favourite, and the origins of this combination (technically a Cuba Libre) could be the first instance of a cola being fortified.

The location was Cuba, the date 1898, and the cause freedom. In a bid to gain independence from Spain, Cubans were reinforced by American troops. To celebrate their victory, a Cuban officer poured his American counterpart some Bacardi rum (the distillery being established in Santiago in 1862).

In order to reciprocate, the American officer opened a bottle of Coca-Cola, then a relatively new soft drink. Combining these two specialities provided a victory toast, with the occasion providing a name that said it all: Cuba Libre.

Coca-Cola originated in 1886, when an Atlanta pharmacist, John Stith Pemberton, created a caramel coloured syrup. Taking this down to Jacobs’ Pharmacy, the city’s largest drugstore, it became one of the options in the soda fountain, priced at five cents a glass. It was the beginning of an international phenomenon.

With various brands of cola to choose from, the appeal of whisky and cola is such that this is now the key ‘entry level’ serve around the world, attracting new drinkers into the category. So what’s the appeal, drinking cola with alcohol, or enjoying whiskies in an easier format?

Whiskies can certainly be easier to drink when mixed with cola, which creates a longer, more refreshing experience. Moreover, as the flavour of a whisky can come through, it’s not simply a case of drinking fortified cola. There can also be a genuine rapport between the two, with cola helping to bring out the fruitiness of a Scotch whisky, for example.

But are drinkers able to actually taste the difference between brands when served with cola? Some can’t, others definitely can, particularly as certain whiskies may have a robust character that remains undisguised by cola.

Consequently, as it’s possible to taste the difference, there is an element of ‘brand call’ even when mixing with cola, which provides brands with an opportunity to develop, and benefit from, consumer loyalty.

As part of a global desire for mixability, the popularity of whisky and cola continues to grow, with significant peaks around the world. For bourbon it’s the US, Australia and the UK, where around 80 per cent of bourbon consumption is with cola.

In Spain, France, Greece and Australia, between 60-80 per cent of Scotch whisky consumed is mixed (not that cola is the only mixer on the menu). In Spain, whisky and cola is actually so popular that it’s considered as a category in itself. And it’s mixability that drives the fashionable appeal of Scotch whisky, particularly among the mid-20s crowd who populate bars, discos and nightclubs.

Standard blends tend to dominate the mixed drinking occasion, though even when drinkers ascend the whisky hierarchy, and include more premium expressions in their repertoire, it doesn’t preclude mixing. There are drinkers who combine 15 year old blended Scotch with cola, though they are definitely in a minority.

And while mixability is focused on blends, it doesn’t mean that malts are only mixed with water either.

Similarly, ‘with cola’ tends to be the usual way that standard bourbon brands are served. Premium bourbons also tend to be mixed, but in the form of cocktails, while super-premiums are drunk neat to sip and savour.

There are of course no rules about how whiskies should be drunk, and everyone should do their own thing, but there are opinions and traditions, not to mention snobbery.

Mixability is typically condemned on the basis that all the craftsmanship behind a whisky is made redundant when it’s ‘drowned’ in something else. But if that’s how it’s going to be enjoyed (and for some people it’s the only way it’s going to be enjoyed), what’s the problem?

While the flavour of various whiskies can take me straight to that special place, I really enjoy cola too. But, depending on the whisky, I prefer to drink them from separate glasses.