Proposed by: David
Reviewed by: Jonathan
When Jonathan and I started this enterprise, I’d given little thought to cocktail history we’d learn along the way. Every drink has a quirky, often disputatious, provenance. Some seem stranger than fiction, positively invented, and some, I suspect, are.
David Wondrich, cocktail historian—excuse me, how does one get that job?—says the Rusty Nail was born during the British Industries Fair of 1937 and called a B.I.F, which appeared over 20 years after the commercial introduction of Drambuie, a whiskey and herb liqueur some say originated in the late 18th century. After 1937, the Rusty Nail took on many aliases: D & S, Little Club No. 1, a Mig-21 (during the Vietnam war), and, in Chicago, a Knucklehead.
Other cocktail historians—wait, there’s more than one… and are there room for more?—locate the Rusty Nail in the early 1960s Manhattan 21 Club. In 1963, the chairwoman of Drambuie approved the recipe and, supposedly, the drink became popular with the Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. The rest of the world, wanting so desperately to be so cool, followed suit. People probably just liked snarling it at bartenders Sinatra-style.
As for the name that stuck, I could find little evidence of its origin, except for one account claiming a bartender in Scotland named it when he rewarded uncouth American patrons with the drink stirred with a rusty nail.
For the record, I cry bullshit on that story—nice to attribute the name to a Scotsman and all, and we know our countrymen can be obnoxious, but the drink is American through and through. I’m more prone to make up a story of my own… which I might… and disseminate… just to see if I can find my own way into cocktail lore.
Before the recipe, one more thing. The recipe comes with many varieties, the Rusty Ale (a shot of Drambuie in beer), the Smoky Nail (with Islay Scotch), the Clavo Ahumado (Mezcal instead of Scotch), the Railroad Spike (with coffee and Scotch and Drambuie and bitters) and The Donald Sutherland (Rye instead of Scotch). There are others, no doubt, but that’s enough to keep you trying variations for a while.
Now here’s the recipe:
- Pour the ingredients into an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes.
- Stir well.
- Garnish with the lemon twist.
Here’s Jonathan’s Review:
It seems like scotch should be in my taste palette both from its makeup and my own. The mash from which it begins is predominantly malted barley making it essentially distilled beer. There is also the Scottish heritage of our surname and paternal ancestry. Even our maternal line, although tracing from Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, includes our great grandmother’s (nee Agnes McDonald) family tree which goes back to Thomas McDonald. He was from Ireland though so maybe that’s part of why I am always on the fence about this particular spirit. Then again it might not be ingredients or genetics.
The part of this cocktail that has been most intriguing from the first time I had seen the recipe is the Drambuie. Although its base is malted whisky, the addition of honey and herbs adds a sweetness and flavors that can’t help but enhance the taste of scotch in my mind. I tasted the Drambuie on its own, and it in turn needs the scotch to cut that sweetness.
Thanks to their use in other cocktails we have tried, there was a basic scotch blend and a smoky one available as choices for the main spirit. I made versions with both of course. The version using Johnny Walker Black was the more successful mix. The Drambuie enhanced the scotch and there was just enough sweetness without being too much. I got the second version (I was sharing this week with my oldest son) made with Black Grouse. I thought the smoke and sweet would blend well, but it wasn’t nearly as smooth. Should have switched them when my son wasn’t looking.
This cocktail also proved the benefit of edge smoothing that occurs with the dilution of water. Spirits are distilled to a much higher alcohol percentage and then cut or bloomed with water. The slow melting of ice in the Rusty Nail had the same mellowing effect and it improved as that happened.
Jonathan’s take: Looked forward to the Drambuie, but in the end, it and the scotch needed each other.
David’s take: Oddly, scotch may be my least favorite spirit. One recipe told me to cut the sweet Drambuie with the scotch, but, personally, I liked the sweetness best.
Next week (proposed by Jonathan):
I will be spending time this week with a large group of golfers, many of whom are old friends from college. Thinking we might try a cocktail associated with golf, I put the proposal to a vote. Instead we will be returning to those college days and the drink will be the alcohol heavy Long Island Iced Tea. Here’s hoping we remember our age when we do.