Do Single Malt Cocktails Make Sense?

rob roy with cherry

I have never been much of a cocktail enthusiast, let alone single malt cocktails. I’m not sure why. I think it may have something to do with drinking one too many “Seven and Sevens” my first year in college.

But putting those misadventures aside, the subject of  single malt cocktails is coming up more and more often. Not being a cocktail drinker, I am always a little surprised that Scotch isn’t as popular as Bourbon or rye when it comes to alcoholic concoctions. I just accept it as dogma and not for a knave like me to question. Until now.

Sense vs Cents

a glass of scotch and soda with ice
Scotch & Soda

I suppose on the surface it always made sense to me not to use a single malt in a cocktail. In fact, I often joke, not only does it not make sense, it doesn’t make “cents”. Bad puns notwithstanding, single malts are expensive. The reason we supposedly pay those high prices is because of the unique tasting experience they offer. Overwhelming those subtle flavors with vermouth or bitters seems a little short-sighted and perhaps a little pretentious.

However, that argument does not hold water since some pretty expensive vodkas end up in cocktails. Perhaps cost is not a consideration. But wait, vodka is odorless and tasteless! Shouldn’t the real question be why wouldn’t you mix it, regardless of the price? And besides, how does something that’s odorless and tasteless even get to be expensive?

But I digress, the subject here is single malt cocktails. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Bear with me and let’s start at the beginning; historical context is important.

The Cocktail

Whiskey in eighteenth-century America was not alway good. It was produced by hundreds of distilleries operating under a range of conditions. And there were few, if any, quality standards. This would not begin to happen until the ‘Bottled in Bond Act of 1897’. As a result, the quality and consistency of the whiskey varied a great deal.

Another important thing to understand; the majority of whiskey was not sold directly by the distillery. It was sold through local merchants. The merchants were called ‘whiskey rectifiers’ and they bought the whiskey from the distilleries and “aged’ it on their premises. Since the aging period was not regulated, some whiskey hits the streets pretty young and raw. To take the edge off, merchants added dried fruits or spices to the whiskey.  In essence, they were making flavored whiskey out of necessity long before the concept became novelty.

In addition, saloon keepers in the nineteenth century kept various “additives” behind the bar to mix with raw spirit. This might include water, sugar, bitters and even vermouth. Charles Dickens, an avid lover of alcoholic punch, noted the practice when chronicling his trip to America in 1842.

an image of jerry Thomas pouring a mixed cocktail from the mixer to the glass two fett below.
“Professor” Jerry Thomas circa 1862

But the cocktail, really didn’t come into its own until later in the middle of the century. In fact, the first publication of a bartender’s’ guide which included cocktail recipes was in 1862 — How to Mix Drinks; or, The Bon Vivant’s Companion, by “Professor” Jerry Thomas. The Professor distinguished the difference between a highball and a cocktail; a highball is a distilled spirit blended with a mixer such as soda or fruit juice. A cocktail, is a mixture of distilled spirits, water, sugar and bitters. Bitters being the key ingredient.

Scotch and the Cocktail

During this period, hundreds of distilleries existed in the United States and demand for imported whiskies was low. However, in 1853, Andrew Usher, a Scottish distiller, began importing his Scotch whisky through the Nicholas Cage & Company. Usher, an early proponent of the Coffey still exported blended whisky.

Blended whisky is malt whisky blended with grain alcohol. It produces a lighter, sweeter more consistent taste than the stronger single malts. By the end of the nineteenth-century blended scotches dominated the Scotch industry, a fact that remains true to today.

One of the first cocktails calling for Scotch was the Rob Roy. A New York bartender invented it in 1894. It seems there was a popular operetta about the Scottish folk hero Rob Roy, playing down the street from the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Creating a spirited cocktail with the same name seemed like a wonderful way to drum up business for the hotel bar. In other words, it was a marketing ploy!

The Rob Roy may have been the first, but the Rusty Nail, Blood and Sand and the Morning Glory Fizz soon followed. But the point here is, blended scotch monopolized the market, single malts weren’t commonly available. Thus, during a ‘Golden Age’ of the cocktail, very little precedent is established for using a single malt in a cocktail mix.

The Vodka Phenomena

a 1960's billboard with a coy looking woman, a bottle of smirnoff and the words, it takes your breath away
A Smirnoff billboard ad from the 1960’s.

Pardon me but I need to take a quick detour, it’s essential to my story of course.  Following WWII vodka  established a foothold in the American liquor market. It was reasonably cheap to produce and since it did not need a long period of aging, was readily available. But vodka is odorless and tasteless, how you gonna market that? Odorless of course!  And that’s exactly what Smirnoff did in the fifties with their,  “It Leaves You Breathless” campaign! Queue the three martini lunch.

This hurt the whisky industry but they certainly were not ready for what happened next. What happened next? Absolut happened next! In the early eighties, Russian vodka dominated the American market and the state owned Swedish vodka industry was not even in the game. But in 1977 Lars Lindmark, then CEO of Sweden’s Wine & Spirits Corp., wanted in on the action. Together with Gunnar Broman, a well-known adman in Stockholm they conceived of a plan that would turn the industry upside down.

The most amazing thing about their plan? Its simplicity. They stressed the ‘pure’ quality of their vodka and promoted it in a clear bottle with understated labeling. They also developed a sophisticated ad campaign that cultivated an aura of sophistication and high value for their product. In 1980 Absolut’s marketing budget was $750,000, by 2000, it’s $33 million and Absolut is the most heavily advertised liquor in the world.

Whisky didn’t stand a chance.

The Return of the Cocktail

While all this was going on, another cultural phenomenon was brewing that would ultimately bode well for the whisky industry. Beginning in the 1980’s, consumers started acquiring a taste for specialty foods. Specialty foods are foods that are “unique and high-value food items” producers make in “small quantities from high-quality ingredients”.

a pront ad from a 196070's magazine showing woody allen next to a tower of moscow mule copper mugs and a smirnoff bottle
Woody Allen in a Smirnoff celebrity magazine ad.

Absolut’s emphasis on the purity and quality of their vodka reflected this growing awareness. But there was a minor detail that needed to be addressed; vodka was odorless but it was also tasteless.  What to do? Queue the cocktail. The first vodka cocktails to regain popularity were drinks like  the “Moscow Mule”,  a mix of vodka, spicy ginger beer, and lime juice, garnished with a slice or wedge of lime. (Technically, Professor Thomas would classify this as a highball but let’s not get too picky.) The Screwdriver — vodka and orange juice, yep, another highball — the Tom Collins and James Bond’s favorite, the Vodka Martini soon followed.

Bartenders continued to build their cocktail repertoire with drinks like the Cosmopolitan, the Sea Breeze, Sex on the Beach and the White Russian. Not to be outdone, the vodka industry responds by introducing a range of flavored vodkas. Soon vodka was being infused with citrus flavors and exotic spices. But the industry may have jumped the shark when they started introducing flavors like ‘Fluff Marshmallow’, ‘Cookie Dough’ and ‘Bubble Gum’ vodka.

The Rise of the Single Malt

Coinciding with the foodie phenomenon, the whisky market started to bounce back. And an unusual development caught the industry off guard. There was a mounting interest in the single malts sector. At first, the industry did not know how to respond. In fact, only a handful of distilleries even marketed a single malt.  However, they soon recognized the lucrative opportunities this development offered and single malt releases grew rapidly.

Key to this growth was their ability to market a single malt’s authenticity, heritage, character and flavor spectrum. Its inherent value was its uniqueness. Marketers placed a great emphasis on the process involved in the creation of a single malt, its natural aging in particular. The emphasis on quality echoes the tenets of the foodie movement and the sale of single malts soared. By 2016, single malt scotch accounted for 26% of the total scotch market. And there lies the center of the single malt cocktail controversy.

Single Malt Cocktails

Now for the first time in modern history, bartenders and mixologists have a plethora of single malts at their fingertips. The strength of the malts and the wide range of flavors they offer provides a unique opportunity to create a very flavorful cocktail. Will it be an expensive cocktail, perhaps, but remember, cost is not a consideration when developing a master piece. Is it pretentious? I think not.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a cocktail enthusiast so it is unlikely I will be mixing my Lagavulin with bitters. But I imagine a bartender out there somewhere working on it as we speak. And I bet that when she succeeds, it will a tasty and memorable quaff!

So, let’s not be too harsh on our brethren who enjoy a single malt cocktail now and then. They are not being sacrilegious, merely curious and creative. In fact, here are a couple of contemporary single malt cocktails you might enjoy.

Clear Thoughts With Speyside
3 parts Glenfiddich 12YO
1 ½ parts fresh lemon juice
1 part Green Chartreuse
1 part orgeat syrup
2 dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters

Created by Brian Summers


Blood & Sanguinello
4 Marasca cherries
1 ½ parts Glenfiddich 12YO
1 ½ parts Solerno
1 ½ parts Lillet Rouge
1 part pink grapefruit juice
½ part fresh lemon juice
2 dashes orange bitters

Muddle cherries, add other ingredients and shake well. Double strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with an orange twist

Created by Charlotte Voisey 


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