Whisky cocktails have been around forever, in one form or another. As we head into the festive season, Tom Bruce-Gardyne tells us how they have evolved and what we should be mixing up at home this year

Before Jerry Thomas published his seminal cocktail book How to Mix Drinks – or The Bon Vivant’s Companion in 1862, he manned the bar at the El Dorado gambling saloon in San Francisco. One day a bear of a man burst in and, to quote the American journalist Herbert Asbury, cried: “Bar-keep! Fix me some hellfire that’ll shake me right down to my gizzard.”
Thomas heated some whisky and water in a pan, set it ablaze and proceeded to shuffle it back and forth like a pack of cards between two cups. The effect was ‘a blazing stream of liquid fire’ he wrote in his book, and presumably the punter at the El Dorado was suitably impressed, as he scorched his lips on the world’s first ever Blue Blazer.

Georgie Bell sings the praises of the Highball whisky cocktail

Few whisky cocktails are as flamboyant as that, but they have always been around if you think back to Scotland’s earliest distillers. Their whisky would have been as smooth as barbed wire since they didn’t bother to strip out the foreshots and feints or faff around with maturation.

Drinkers would have foraged heather, bog myrtle, wild herbs, honey – anything to mix in and soften the blow. That sense of necessity being the mother of invention was repeated during US Prohibition when the base spirit needed all the disguise and artifice a bartender could muster. If bathtub gin was bad, ‘whisky’ could be 10 times worse. Those notorious Canadian bootleggers, the Bronfmans, bragged of their recipe that involved ethanol, water, some caramel for colour, sulphuric acid and an oak-lined galvanized tank. The acid ate into the wood after a few days, which apparently gave a rough approximation of cask ageing.

With such low-grade hooch to play with, not to mention the use of embalming fluid bought from undertakers at a dollar a gallon, you wonder what cocktails really tasted like in your average New York speakeasy. But thanks to the Jazz age and swanky cocktail bars in London, Paris and beyond, the drink gained a glamorous reputation and a decidedly American accent. This pointed bartenders to bourbon or rye in the case of an Old Fashioned or Manhattan. Scotch is fighting back however, with its own take on the above and through other cocktails like the Penicillin and the Paper Plane.

“I think we’re doing it really well with the Highball movement,” says Georgie Bell, former SMWS ambassador and now Bacardi’s global malts ambassador.

“Through a joint effort by all companies, the Highball is being seen as a recognised Scotch whisky cocktail.” Adding soda and ice is the simplest way to stretch whisky into a long serve, and it can be done with a certain flair, as Japanese bartenders have shown.

Arthur Motley, another alumnus of the SMWS who is now purchasing director at Royal Mile Whiskies, is all for “doing more to make blended whisky fun, and make it a great base for a party drink with bubbles in it”. But he is less taken with the idea of involving expensive single malts.

“I’ve got absolutely nothing against Scotch being used in cocktails, but it jars with me when something like Lagavulin 15-year-old or Macallan 18 is used,” he says.

“It’s wasteful, and kind of disrespectful because you shouldn’t need to add anything to a drink like that.”

Or indeed the Macallan 55-year-old that Dubai’s Skyview bar offered with dried fruit bitters, homemade passion fruit sugar and ice cubes from the distillery’s own water source. It was priced £4,632 in 2012 but you did get to keep the gold-plated Bacarat glass it was served in.

Back in the real world, Georgie Bell accepts the price of malts is a barrier, but says: “Ultimately, it’s the same art, craft and complexity that goes into making a blended whisky as a single malt, so why should we treat them differently when it comes to mixed drinks? At the end of the day we mix single malts for a new flavour experience and approachability, and to break down the stigma associated with Scotch.”

Arthur Motley prefers to stick to blends in his cocktails

Joe Petch says a Muddled Old Fashioned has a real festive flavour

Arguably the most successful Scotch brand on the cocktail circuit is neither a blend nor a single malt. It is Monkey Shoulder, William Grant’s blended malt that promoted its ‘made for mixing’ message through a fleet of pimped up cement mixers, each carrying 11,000 litres of a pre-mixed whisky cocktail. They are currently parked up and lying empty, but the brand’s global ambassador, Joe Petch, hopes they will soon be back on the road supplying music festivals and the like.

He goes on to mention the ‘Monkey kitchen cocktail’ programme that was set up in the spring when bars closed, saying: “We gave 10 bartenders a week £100 to submit a recipe that they filmed in their kitchen, which we linked to the brand’s Instagram account to educate followers and home consumers. It was hugely successful for the first eight weeks of lockdown.”

As for a winter-warming cocktail for Christmas, Joe suggests: “Either a Boulevardier, which is a Scotch take on a Negroni, or a Muddled Old Fashioned that’s very easy to make at home and has a festive flavour.”

Meanwhile the Society continues to release blended malts of its own, offering fresh options for attractively priced bottlings to work with in your cocktails. “We have a couple of very interesting blended malts coming out soon, and I’ve enjoyed working with this range of Society whiskies,” says Anthony Delcros, assistant manager at the Society’s Glasgow Members’ Room.

“Our Peat Faerie had some Speyside malt worked really well in a Reverse Rob Roy.” Reversing a cocktail means taking a classic recipe and swapping the ratio of spirit to the sweet element like vermouth, Anthony explains. That sounds simple enough, but aren’t people daunted by all the alchemy and paraphernalia of modern cocktails to attempt making them at home? “You don’t necessarily need that much equipment,” he replies.

“It’s really about your ingredients like cooking, you just need some good spirits and good sweetening agents. It’s not intimidating as long as you have ice, a spoon and a jug big enough to stir your drink in.” And a fire extinguisher if you are crazy enough to set it ablaze.

“You don’t necessarily need that much equipment. It’s not intimidating as long as you have ice, a spoon and a jug big enough to stir your drink in”