Rob Roy

Ian Wisniewski on the nearest thing Scotland has to a national cocktail
By Ian Wisniewski
Scotch whisky may be the national spirit of Scotland, though this doesn’t mean it provides a national cocktail, in the way that a mojito is an automatic choice for Cubans, or a dry martini is a favourite with Americans.

But then that’s hardly surprising as Scotch has a limited cocktail tradition, with mixability often simply a case of adding water.

In fact, the restricted choice of Scotch whisky cocktails ensures that any contenders have an automatic distinction. And if the name of the cocktail has any deeper associations, such as a familiar Scottish figure by the name of Rob Roy, then it can also assume a greater significance.
Rob Roy was the nickname of Robert McGregor (1671-1734), who subsequently assumed the name of Campbell in 1716. But then there’s also a fourth option, as another name for him was Robert the Red, which reflected the colour of his hair.

Although immortalised by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) in the eponymous novel, Rob Roy doesn’t initially seem like hero material. Being described as “rather beneath the middle size than above it,” isn’t a great start.

And even though Scott gives him broad shoulders, which are a pre-requisite of every hero, they only serve to make him look out of proportion rather than statuesque. Similarly, the advantages of having toned, pumped-up arms are immediately negated by their excessive length.

Meanwhile, the origins of the Rob Roy are thought to be New York rather than Scotland, having been created by a bartender at The Waldorf Hotel in 1894, to celebrate the opening night of an opera called Rob Roy.

When this cocktail developed a more international profile is uncertain, though a recipe for the Rob Roy appears in that landmark tome, The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930 by The Savoy Hotel in London. It’s clear that the Rob Roy already had a following among Scots by that time, as a note accompanying the recipe states that it’s served, “particularly for St Andrew’s Day to open the evening for the usual enormous annual gathering of the Clans at The Savoy.”

A great advantage of this cocktail are a mere three ingredients that are easy to assemble, and a method which is simple to follow. All that’s required is a measure of Scotch whisky, sweet vermouth and a dash of Angostura Bitters, stirred in a mixing glass and strained into a cocktail glass.

While some cocktails are original creations, numerous others are an adaptation of existing recipes, and there’s a striking resemblance between the Rob Roy and the Manhattan (the difference being rye whiskey rather than Scotch whisky).

The Manhattan was also created in New York, in the Manhattan Club, but significantly earlier, in 1874. That’s when Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jenny Jerome, a Manhattan socialite and subsequently mother of Sir Winston Churchill), hosted a banquet to celebrate the election of Samuel Tilden as governor of New York. One of the club’s bartenders, experimenting with a new recipe for this event came up with the recipe, though history doesn’t record his name.

Which Scotch whisky to use in a Rob Roy is of course an important decision, whether it’s based on the flavour, or indeed any other considerations.

One option is Bailie Nicol Jarvie, frequently abbreviated to BNJ, which was created by whisky merchant Nicol Anderson in 1860.

When thinking of a brand name for his whisky, Nicol Anderson was inspired by the character of the Bailie, who was actually Rob Roy’s cousin in Sir Walter Scott’s novel.

Bailie was a Glasgow magistrate, who had quite an adventure when arriving with companions at an inn at Aberfoyle. Three Highlanders sitting at a table felt their personal space had been invaded by Bailie’s group, and drew their swords on them. Bailie’s attempt to defend himself was valiant but redundant, finding that his sword had rusted to its scabbard (not having seen any active service for such a long time).

Instead Bailie took the initiative by seizing a red hot poker from the fireplace, and used it to ignite the kilt of one of his adversaries. At this the Highlanders cried, “Enough, the gentlemen have shown themselves men of honour,” and that was the end of it.

After the Bailie offered to replace the kilt, drinks were ordered all round, and they were all set to live happily ever after.