It was a cold winter’s night some seven years ago when I got the call. I had gone to bed that evening envisaging a good night’s sleep only to be woken by the shrill tones of the telephone. It was the producer from the Television Food Network (TVFN) who frantically explained that a guest due to appear on their Food, News, and Views show had failed to show up. Could I step into the breach, think of something to talk about and be there in, say, 11 minutes? What sticks in my mind most about these moments of blind panic is that I noticed that six inches of snow had accumulated while I slept (or napped in this case).After arriving at the studio in my car-cum-bobsleigh, I planned to give a basic run-down on the attributes of Highland, Lowland, Islay and Campbeltown bottlings. Nothing earth shattering about that but the producer wasn’t satisfied, so he asked if I could possibly think of a more outrageous topic. “Sure, I’ll make some single malt cocktails on air,” I said.
I was the butt of many a joke for a few weeks after I desecrated those precious malts, and more than a few eyebrows were raised at various social functions when the topic was discussed. “Single malt cocktails, indeed!” said one luminary of the food world, rolling her eyes as she brushed by me. I was in hog heaven.
Not everybody hated the idea of my using precious malts in mixed drinks, though. Shortly after my appearance on TVFN I bumped into Willie Phillips, then distillery manager at The Macallan Distillery, and expected him to be
thoroughly disgusted with the idea. “D’na tell anyone,” he whispered, “but I sometimes drink my Macallan with tomato juice.” Sorry Willy, the tale had to be told.
I love my single malts. I love them neat. I love them with a drop of spring water. And I love them in a Rob Roy, a Bobbie Burns, a Rusty Nail and a Debonair Cocktail. I don’t use the most expensive bottlings unless someone else is paying, of course, but I do take these mixed drinks very seriously and I’ve experimented with recipes for nigh on a decade now.
The one thought to keep in mind when making single malt Scotches is that less is always more. Don’t even attempt to make a drink that calls for more than three ingredients - you’ll find yourself with a confusing mix of flavours that won’t show off the distinctive characteristics of whichever malt you’ve chosen to use. Not many cocktails have a Scotch base in the first place, so unless you’re willing to experiment with your own creations your choices will be somewhat limited. “Whisky ... is a grouchy old bachelor that stubbornly insists on maintaining its independence and is seldom to be found in a marrying mood,” wrote David Embury in his 1952 book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. And that’s not far from the truth.
If you’re going to make single malt cocktails, you have to be very careful when measuring the ingredients. A Rob Roy, for instance, can be successfully constructed with one part sweet vermouth to four or five parts blended Scotch. But make a Rob Roy with a Bowmore single malt and you’ll need to use more vermouth if you want to balance the elegant smokiness present in most Bowmore bottlings. Use Laphroaig and you’re looking at near as damn it a 50/50 ratio for a good Rob Roy.
I’m also a big fan of bitters and I’ll usually add a dash or three to a Rob Roy when I’m using blended Scotch, but the bitters bottle never sees the light of day if I’m making a single malt version of the drink. Why? Bitters serve a couple of purposes in a cocktail: they bring the other ingredients together in harmony and they also add complexity to the drink. However, if you use them in single malt cocktails they will conflict with the whisky and who needs more complexity when there’s a good malt in the glass? Not I, that’s for sure.
If you are a purist when it comes to your beloved whisky, there’s nothing I can say here that will convince you to make any of my single malt cocktails. However, if you’re a malt fan and a cocktail enthusiast I urge you to try some of the recipes below. One of them, The Debonair, is a drink that my wife and I created in the early 1990s. It eventually made its way onto the cocktail menu at New York’s Rainbow Room and the resident master mixologist, Dale DeGroff, swears that he sold a case of whisky every month that was used only in that drink.