OPEN YOUR MIND
A century ago whisky cocktails were all the rage and it’s time to take a fresh look at Scotch in mixed drinks, says Inka Larissa. Here’s how to take the plunge
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
For some, the idea of using a single malt in a cocktail is sacrilege, so if you are that way inclined, bear with me for a moment, as I think it’s something you should reconsider. Often in the summer we end up sipping lighter whiskies to match the season, but what if we were to turn them into refreshing long drinks instead?
Most people don’t realise that whisky was the key ingredient in many cocktails during the ‘Roaring Twenties’. During Prohibition, for example, it was common practice to mix peated Islay whisky with fruit, sugar and bitters to disguise the smell of the whisky, and this led to its extensive use in cocktails. Once the quality of single malt Scotch improved, the cocktail making faded away. Scotch was now seen as a ‘high end’ product, which created a reluctance to ’water it down’ or to use it in cocktails.
This slightly misplaced elitism was often driven by the whisky producers themselves. Many considered their product to be too pure or too precious to be adulterated in mixed drinks, and for the longest time this kept Scotch largely off our cocktail menus. Luckily, times have changed, and more and more people appreciate that single malt Scotch as a category is full of diverse and complex flavours, which can be presented in many ways, including through cocktails.
If you’re still aghast at this, can I encourage you to take a wee step out of your comfort zone and try something new?
FINDING THE RIGHT WHISKY
Because of the unique nature of single casks, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society frequently bottles whiskies that don’t fit in with the regional stereotype, let alone matching a specific distillery’s classic profile. For this reason, the Society has created a very convenient categorisation system which splits their whiskies into 12 groups based on flavour. These work as great indicators of the characters and Tasting Notes in each bottling, coming in handy when you try to match the whisky with the right kind of cocktail.
As an added bonus, the higher strength of the Society’s whiskies contributes significantly to the body of the cocktail, adding texture and bringing different notes from the whisky to the forefront. Navy-strength gin and rum are regularly used in cocktails, therefore stronger whiskies shouldn’t be any different. The higher ABV will help create long-lasting flavour. They will also stand up to other ingredients with strong flavour profiles.
ABOVE: A 'Vaults Julep'
You just need to keep the alcohol percentage in mind when enjoying a cocktail or two to drink responsibly. You have more room to play with cask strength whisky, as you can always water down the boldness and the heat, or simply use smaller measures.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
My key piece of advice is not to over-complicate things. The best whisky cocktails are simple, two-to-three-ingredient serves.
Take a classic Whisky Highball, for example. It works well with various flavour profiles and is best suited for Scotch and Japanese whisky. In fact, it is the most popular way of drinking whisky in Japan. Creating Highballs is an art form for the local bartenders as they consider every aspect, from the shape and size of the ice and the ideal soda to whisky ratio, to garnish combinations. Based on the whisky, the Highball is enhanced with a slice of cucumber, citrus or even a sprig of mint or thyme.
Whisky Highball is a very refreshing serve throughout the year and something we could all learn to appreciate a bit more.
SWEET, SOUR & SPICY
If you like your cocktails more on the sweet side, another perfect thirst quencher is a Scotch-based version of the Mint Julep. The added sugar will amplify the flavour and balance any bitterness or acidity, and a good measure of mint gives the drink a fresh touch.
A Lightly Peated SMWS whisky works well in a sour cocktail, although you can experiment by adapting the recipe with different styles of whisky to change the flavour profile. Traditionally, sour is made using three elements: spirit, sweetener and souring agent.
The balance between the sweet and the tart is what makes the cocktail so enjoyable. Personally, I prefer to skip the egg in whisky sours, but it does add a nice, smooth texture so perhaps try it both ways.
New York Sour, on the other hand, works better with Juicy, Oak & Vanilla whiskies, as you want those vanilla notes to complement the wine. The red wine should be dry but fruity.
The Spicy & Dry category includes whiskies with a bit of heat, bite or just a mix of wintery spices followed by a drier mouthfeel and finish, making them an ideal match for ginger ale and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Simple. Or try whiskies from the Sweet, Fruity & Mellow category, which is full of fruity, jammy whiskies ready to be paired with ginger beer or even with some cloudy apple juice.
If you prefer something more complex, Rob Roy is the cocktail for you. Named after the Scottish folk hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, the cocktail is basically a Scotch version of a Manhattan.
Choose a whisky with a Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits flavour profile as you’ll want something mighty to match the sweet vermouth (check Valentian, a Scottish-Italian vermouth made with Scottish new-make malt spirit).
I hope to have inspired you to take the leap and give Scotch whisky cocktails a chance. Start with something simple, like the Highball. You’ll have fun playing around with the garnish and whisky combinations, similar to how you would with a G&T.
Inka Larissa is a spirits blogger, taking a largely female perspective on all things drink-related from around the globe. Her blog, On the Sauce Again, covers everything from gin to whisky to grappa, and she also co-hosts the Whisky Sisters podcast with Jennifer Rose.