A Beginner's Guide to Classic Whisky Cocktails

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone

There are few better experiences than sitting down, relaxing and sipping a good whisky cocktail.

Whisky is a versatile spirit that adapts and shines when creatively mixed. Whether you are sat in a comfortable chair at home or perched on a stool in a trendy bar, there is something for all.

Here we pick the all-time classics that will inspire you to get shaking and stirring…

A classic whisky cocktail

Simple Serves

The Highball

Perhaps the easiest whisky cocktail to make – simply add a measure of Scotch whisky (a light blend or single grain works best) to a tall glass, fill with ice, add sparkling water and garnish with a slice of lemon. You can add depth to the flavour by adding a little ginger liqueur or a dash of bitters. The highball is an evolution of Scotch & Soda, which became popular in the UK in late Victorian times. If you want to go Japanese, then add still water instead of sparkling to make a mizuwari. Refreshing and uplifting.

The Hot Toddy

This warm drink was all the rage in mid-Victorian Britain and how most people drank their whisky. The name has colonial roots – toddy is a fermented Indian drink made from palm sap – and combines blended Scotch, a blob of honey, and a squeeze of lemon. Top up with boiling water in a mug or toddy glass, then jazz up with cloves, a cinnamon stick or wedge of fresh ginger. Also known as Hot Whiskey if you use Irish whiskey or Grog if you use rum. Not just a flu remedy.

The Rusty Nail

A Scotch whisky cocktail that could not be easier to make – combine three parts Scotch whisky (a good blend or sweet Speyside single malt works very well) with one part of Drambuie whisky liqueur. It must be Drambuie otherwise it is not a Rusty Nail. The lovely honeyed and herbal notes of the liqueur add wonderful depth and complexity. Pour into a tumbler over ice and garnish with lemon zest. The Rusty Nail was made popular by the Rat Pack in New York during the 1950s and 60s.

Timeless Classics

The Blood and Sand

This beautiful whisky cocktail recipe first appeared in the 1930 edition of The Savoy Cocktail Book and features equal parts of Scotch whisky (a good blend or a Speyside single malt works best), cherry brandy liqueur, sweet red vermouth, and freshly squeezed orange juice. All are shaken together with ice and then poured into a coupe glass with a twist of orange zest to garnish. Said to be named after Rudolph Valentino’s 1922 bullfighting movie Blood and Sand. Delicious and elegant.

The Manhattan

The origins of this famous cocktail are somewhat conflicting. However, the first official recipe appeared in O. H. Byron’s book The Modern Bartender’s Guide in 1884 and was served at The Manhattan Club in New York. This used American rye whiskey (although bourbon is now commonly used), dry red vermouth and a dash of bitters, all garnished with lemon zest twist. You can ask for a sweeter version with sweet red vermouth, cherry syrup, and a cherry garnish. It should be served in a chilled martini glass.

The Mint Julep

A super refreshing and iconic American drink that is a real thoroughbred amongst cocktails. The origins are uncertain, but it has been the official beverage of the famous Kentucky Derby horse race for every year since being first introduced in 1938. Fresh mint leaves are bruised then mixed with a good slug of bourbon, sugar syrup and a couple of dashes of bitters. Shaken with ice, then poured into a metal or copper julep cup filled with crushed ice and garnished with a sprig of fresh mint.

The Old Fashioned

The first reference for the Old Fashioned can be found in 1806, placing it right at the beginning of the cocktail era. The recipe has changed little in 200 years and has stood the test of time. Traditionalists insist on rye whiskey, but bourbon is commonly used today. Soak a sugar cube with bitters in a tumbler and crush it. Then add whiskey and some big chunks of ice, then stir. And stir. And stir. This offers great theatre if prepared by a good bartender. Garnish with orange zest. The original whisky cocktail.

The Rob Roy

Scotch whisky’s answer to the Manhattan. It was also created in New York but at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where the Empire State Building now stands, in 1894. Mistakenly thought to be named after Scottish folk hero and outlaw Robert Roy MacGregor (aka Rob Roy). Instead, it was inspired by Rob Roy – a musical playing on Broadway at the time. Like the Manhattan, red vermouth and bitters are used. However, the rye whiskey is replaced with Scotch (a rich blend or Speyside single malt).

The Sazerac

Recipes from the early 1800s show a similar drink being made using Cognac. The whiskey version first appeared in 1873 at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans. The Cognac industry had been devastated by phylloxera, so owner Thomas Handy replaced it with local rye whiskey. The rest is history as they say. Stir rye with a dash of bitters, sugar syrup and ice. This punchy cocktail is poured into a rocks glass or tumbler previously rinsed with absinthe. Garnish with a twist of lemon zest.

The Whisky Sour

Believed to have evolved from Punch, the historic rum-based drink that was historically taken by sailors to prevent scurvy, the Whisky Sour has stood the test of time. Shake a mixture of American whiskey (usually bourbon), a good amount of lemon juice, egg white and sugar together to produce a wonderful silky cocktail. Serve in a rocks glass over ice and garnish with a twist of lemon and a cherry. Adding a splash of red wine gives you the equally delicious New York Sour.

Modern-Day Masterpiece

The Penicillin

A contemporary classic first created in 2005 by Sam Ross at the renowned Milk & Honey bar in New York. This stunning cocktail combines two Scotch whiskies (four parts blended or Speyside single malt with one part peated Islay single malt) with ginger liqueur, freshly squeezed lemon juice and honey syrup. Shake together with ice and pour into a rocks glass or tumbler over a big chunk of ice. Garnish with ginger. Packed with honeyed richness, subtle smoke, and warming spice. Fabulous.

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