Why You Should Be Using Single Malt Scotch in Your Cocktail

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when merely asking for an ice cube in your single malt scotch was enough to get you tarred, feathered, and run out of town. Thankfully, the perceived rules have loosened. Drinking scotch, or partaking in any of life’s finer pursuits, is today more about deriving pleasure however you darn well please than it is rigidly sticking with yesteryear’s mandates. Join the revolution, with a full range of single malt scotch cocktails offering new ways to highlight, showcase, and ultimately enjoy the wondrous world of single malts.

The Sanctity of Single Malts

The perceived sanctity of single malts begins of course with the producers themselves. Many simply believed their scotch was far too good, too precious on its own merits to be wasted in a drink, and strived to create an elitist world outside of cocktails. That is, until it was clear that cocktails were helping to boost the good fortunes of competing categories such as bourbon and rye, and even Japanese whisky, what with the country’s love of all things Highball.

Single malts were long neglected by the cocktail world as a result, although it’s hard to grasp why they shouldn’t get in on the fun, too. “Simply stated, single malts represent a diversity and depth of flavors that aren’t available in other whiskies,” offers Glenfiddich brand ambassador Allan Roth. “To decide to not use them in cocktails would be like deciding to paint without the color blue.”

Part of the trickle-down effect has been that while bar-goers may be comfortable calling for a favored bourbon in their Old-Fashioned or Manhattan, that concept hasn’t translated into the realm of scotch. “If customers were going to order a scotch cocktail, it would have to be in front of them on the cocktail list,” says Torrence Swain, head bartender of Washington, D.C.’s Bourbon Steak. “They won’t say, ‘Oh I’ll take a Macallan 12 Manhattan.’ That doesn’t happen.”

The Dunyvaig Flip by Ryan Chetiyawardana (Photo by Julian Love)

Thankfully, bartenders are now doing their part to get creative single malt cocktails out there in front of guests. “I’ve been seeing a lot more on my travels,” confirms Ryan Chetiyawardana of London’s highly touted cocktail bars White Lyan and Dandelyan. He also backs up the idea that the root of the bias goes far beyond the back of the bar, saying, “It was certainly the case a while ago, notably an issue with producers!”

Eamon Rockey, general manager of Manhattan’s Betony, sees two sides to the issue. “I think there are a couple of schools of thought on this,” he says. “I think one school of thought is, why take a spirit which is so delicate and nuanced, and just throw a bunch of stuff on top of it that would make it difficult to perceive that nuance? I get that, I totally understand.”

Yet, who’s to say that the world’s best and most painstakingly procured cut of beef or most freshly caught exotic fish doesn’t go well with an expertly seasoned sauce—particularly when prepared by the hands of a masterful chef? “If you have both of them at the highest possible level of execution, and they’re properly paired with each other, then they can elevate each other, as opposed to detract from each other,” says Rockey.

“Cocktails are all about celebrating the nuanced flavor of spirits, so it’s ironic that there’s a belief that single malts, which are the most nuanced Scotch whiskies, somehow shouldn’t be used in cocktails,” says Roth.

Then there’s the sheer economics of the equation. “I think a lot of people think that because single malts have a hefty price tag, that they should be treated preciously, as in only sipped neat or on the rocks,” says Natasha David, co-owner and head bartender of Nitecap in Manhattan.

That also means that certain single malts are priced out of what is worthwhile or appropriate for a restaurant or bar in the business of selling drinks. “The main reason single malts don’t get used in cocktails very often is that it doesn’t make sense, numbers wise, to put something so expensive in a cocktail,” says David.

What’s often missed though, is that when used as a component, a cocktail with a pricey scotch offers a glimpse of the whisky, while actually reducing the cost of trying it.

Land, Sea, and Skye by Ryan Chetiyawardana (Photo by Julian Love)

Cocktail Strategies for Single Malts

At Betony, Rockey created the Stone Soup cocktail, which in cold weather highlights Glenlivet 18 year old—although in summer, he transitions to the blended Royal Salute 21 year old. “I started thinking to myself, wouldn’t it be cool if we could put something like Glenlivet 18, like an exclusive, delicious, hearty wintertime scotch, into a cocktail,” says Rockey. “Unfortunately, it’s kind of price prohibitive for a variety of reasons. You could just throw it into a drink and charge a lot of money for it, but what’s the fun in that?”

Instead, he built the cocktail around the whisky in such a way as to showcase its profile, while using other ingredients as its base; in this case, Ceylon black tea, fino sherry, demerara sugar, lemon oleo saccharum (a staple punch ingredient made by extracting oils from citrus peels with sugar), and pipe tobacco delivered via an infused spritz of whisky.

“The whisky, just as a neat spirit, would cost you, in any bar, far more,” says Rockey. “So to spend less on a drink that showcases it is a steal…. It’s a very cost-efficient cocktail from my perspective, and also a very great opportunity to drink a phenomenal scotch from a guest’s perspective.”

It comes down to value versus price. “As long as the value is translated, then I don’t think any whisky is out of bounds,” says Chetiyawardana. “The more expensive the whisky, the more there is often a need to be delicate with it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be mixed, or enhanced, or transported, with careful additions…. Amazing whiskies are just that—they’re amazing, and a great cocktail can use a great whisky at its core and still offer value.”

With the breadth of flavors that single malts bring to the table, a wealth of cocktail possibilities is being unleashed with their liberation. There are hidden, unexplored flavor notes just waiting to be discovered thanks to what Chetiyawardana calls the “multi-faceted complexity” of single malts. “By mixing a single, you can explore new sides to it—even for those enthusiasts with their long-term favorite whisky,” he says. “It can also transport a whisky that usually sits so well in one occasion to a completely new scenario.”

Chetiyawardana, who was named International Bartender of the Year at the 2015 Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail, this year collaborated with Diageo at the event for a special dinner highlighting their Special Releases portfolio. While some of the whisky put forth was rightfully untouchable for anything but a neat pour—exquisite drams such as Port Ellen 32 year old and Brora 37 year old—Chetiyawardana didn’t shy away from using the more accessible malts, such as Talisker 10 year old and Lagavulin 16 year old. “A lot of people are so protective of this whisky,” says Chetiyawardana, referencing the Lagavulin 16. However, by using it correctly in a cocktail the whisky gets shown in a new light. “It brings out a lot of flavors you wouldn’t get from the whisky neat,” he explains.

“At some points, I’ll try to tone down certain aspects, where at others I’ll try to bolster them. It depends on the style of cocktail I’m aiming for,” says Chetiyawardana. “For a brighter aperitif-style cocktail, I’ll look to highlight citrus or fruit notes…but for a richer style drink I’ll focus on the spice and maybe the smoke and use elements that highlight some of the meatiness, depth, and body. Often you can discover new sides to a whisky by opening it up in this way.”

At Nitecap, David also takes care to make single malts part of a greater whole. “Often times one can taste all sorts of new flavors and characters when [a single malt] is mixed with other ingredients,” she says. “Making cocktails is all about trial and error and finding that perfect balance, where every ingredient plays a part. Each cocktail also has an individual personality.” On her menu is the Smooth Operator from former head bartender Nick Settle. It uses Ardbeg 10 year old with two types of tequila, sapin (a minty, herbal liqueur made with fir buds), and pineapple gum syrup. “The Ardbeg is a modifier in the cocktail,” she says. “The tequilas are the base spirit, with the single malt playing the supporting character bringing everything together.”

Sam Ross, behind the bar at Attaboy, created the Penicillin, a classic single malt cocktail. (Photo by Casey Oto)

Rethinking the Classics

Classic cocktails are an ideal jumping-off point when stirring up a few rounds at home. “There’s a simplicity to classic cocktails that just works,” says Chetiyawardana. “They’re therefore great to riff on for new drinks, but I won’t follow a [precise] recipe.”

That means worry less about exact ounces of spirit versus citrus or vermouth and so forth, and instead focus on the qualities of the whisky itself. “To match the idiosyncrasies of the spirit I’ll adapt the ratios and any accent notes to make sure it works to the spirit, not simply to drown it,” says Chetiyawardana.

“I’ll start by tasting the whisky, then work out what I want to do with it,” he says. “Taste the whisky first, then find out what appeals that you’d like to bring out in a cocktail, then start with a classic that helps you get to the focus of this. A Manhattan to draw out the richness and texture, or a Highball to tease out the lighter delicacy, then find accents that help bring this to life.”

For instance, while blends are often deployed in the classic Bobby Burns cocktail, single malts can offer an easy, fresh makeover to a neglected classic. “The Bobby Burns is one of my all-time favorites,” says Roth. “The combination of a great single malt, a quality sweet vermouth, and Bénédictine is classic. It derives its depth of flavor from the whisky, some sweetness and bitterness from the vermouth, and a touch of complexity from the Bénédictine.” 

As the Manhattan and Bobby Burns are similar in nature, starting with a whisky and sweet vermouth pairing, it’s easy to experiment with both together to see what sticks. Start with a smooth, bourbon cask-aged Speyside, and consider something cask strength for added oomph. In a Highball, look no further than the Highlands, and as Chetiyawardana suggests, bring out a softer, floral side of the scotch.

One key attribute to keep in mind is the specifics of a single malt’s barrel aging. “It revolves around barrel treatment,” says Rockey, referring to how he selects which scotch to use in a particular cocktail. “You have single malt scotches which are aged in barrels which derive a great deal of flavor from those barrels, maybe it’s a sherry barrel, or whatever it may be, versus others which are thrown into really old oak.”

Therefore, if you’re subbing a single malt for bourbon, it’s not surprising that you’d want bourbon casks to have played a role in aging. Also unsurprising then is that when Glenfiddich recently released their 14 year old, finished in new, charred American oak casks, they immediately began promoting its usage in cocktails. “As you’d expect, Glenfiddich 14 year old lends itself very well to classic bourbon cocktails such as the Mint Julep and Old-Fashioned,” offers Roth.

Perhaps the best argument that single malt cocktails have arrived is that they now have a classic of their own: the Penicillin, developed by bartender Sam Ross at Manhattan’s Milk & Honey in 2005. It’s such a classic that you don’t even need to take Ross’s word for it, as other bartenders preach its gospel far and wide. Both Swain and Rockey called its number when asked if there were single malt cocktail classics that stood out to them.

Penicillin (Photo by Casey Oto)

“A true Penicillin is supposed to be ginger, honey, lemon, blended scotch, and Islay, and I use Caol Ila,” Swain explains.

“If we’re talking about classic single malt scotch cocktails, or at least modern classics, I like looking at the Penicillin as an example,” says Rockey. “The base of the Penicillin is blended scotch, and it sort of carries the weight on its shoulders. But the face of the drink is definitely Islay single malt. That for me is one of the most classic and best examples of how scotch can be used intelligently in a cocktail, especially combining more than one style of scotch for the betterment of the cocktail. The thing is, if you used only Islay it would be too much…but that combination is the perfect way to go about it.”

Swain likes to switch up another classic, a Perfect Manhattan incorporating equal parts dry and sweet vermouth. “There’s one classic one called the Affinity, and you make it with an Islay scotch. My favorite is Laphroaig for this cocktail, and it’s absolutely amazing. It’s a Laphroaig Perfect Manhattan. Oh my goodness man, it’s beautiful…. Those Islays really, really perform well. They really give you what you’re looking for.”

Play with a classic, match your personal tastes, and as Rockey reminds, remember to build a cohesive flavor profile for the cocktail. “I just think that if you find the right balance, you can do a lot of different things,” he says.

Also be sure to build around the whisky first, rather than shoving it into a drink without thinking it through. “It’s also important, I think, to match the type of single malt to the type of cocktail,” says Roth. “As long as you trust and follow your own palate, it’s very hard to make a mistake.”

You can forget the holier than thou, precious single malt mantra—it’s time for some at-home experimentation.

Get The Recipes

Land, Sea, and Skye by Ryan Chetiyawardana

The Redhead by Ryan Chetiyawardana

Stone Soup by Eamon Rockey

Penicillin by Sam Ross

Dunyvaig Flip by Ryan Chetiyawardana

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