The Rusty Nail

drinxProposed 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:

Ingredients:

Preparation:

  1. Pour the ingredients into an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes.
  2. Stir well.
  3. Garnish with the lemon twist.

rnailHere’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.

The Toast of the Town

Proposed by: Jonathan

Reviewed by: David

Toast3The proposal last week noted that we have not tried a cocktail with Scotch. There are classic cocktails like the Rob Roy or Blood and Sand, but don’t seem to be nearly as many variations with Scotch as there are with other whisky (or whiskey). On the other hand, Scotch whisky can vary by being single malt, single grain, blended and all of that with different distilleries by region. The single malt is simply water and malted barley, while the single grain, oddly, can use other grains but is made at a single distillery. The blends make this more complex by blending more than one single malt, more than one single grain, or single malt with single grain.

Once a neophyte grasps that, and the taste variations that come along with it, there are the recognized regions and the differences that brings. The regions are Speyside, Cambeltown, Islay, Lowland and the Highlands. One of the things I find most peculiar is that while Scotland may be an island itself, it has small islands on which they make Scotch. That seems like a region too, but those are included in the Highlands region. Islands are highlands? Of course they are.

Not complicated enough yet? Scotch must be aged in oak casks for at least 3 years to meet requirements but can be, and is, aged much longer to mellow, smooth and increase the complexity of taste. Someone could, and no doubt has, spend their lifetime taste testing all the single malts, single grains, the blends derived from them, and the aged Scotches. I know that I have few friends who would happily volunteer for that task.

The cocktail this week is a relatively new one created by Mike Ryan at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago. It is called the Talk of the Town and I found it in the e-book Speakeasy Cocktails. It uses a blended Scotch from the Famous Grouse family called Black Grouse. Black grouse is described as being smoky and smooth which was appealing as a contrast to the standard sweet and sour (citrus) that make up so many cocktails.

2 ounce Black Grouse blended Scotch

.5 ounce fresh grapefruit juiced

.5 ounce fresh lemon juice

.75 ounce honey syrup (simple syrup made with honey instead of sugar)

Mix all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake and strain into a coupe or martini glass.

In the proposal I suggested that David may want to go to Sable to try this drink. Interesting that, as David notes, it doesn’t appear on the menu any longer. Not sure this is a verdict on the cocktail, or a comment on the cocktail bar that is constantly mixing and re-mixing to find new combinations.

Here’s David’s Review:Toast 2

I’m compiling a list of bars and restaurants I’d like to visit when my brother comes to Chicago. If you were to arrive here on or around St. Patrick’s Day or the evening of some post-season game, you might think Chicagoans are all nomadic drunks, but we have some sophisticated drinkers too. We don’t all have mustaches, drink PBR, and bray about “Da Bearrs.” Just about every eatery on my list features a cocktail special to that place and—as a bonus—many serve good food.

So I was happy to visit The Sable Kitchen and Bar, one of the dim minimalist, black-furnished, in-the-know spots that seem to appear on every corner inside the loop. Perhaps you have them in your city too—this one had an eight-foot long fireplace filled with a video screen displaying flames. Because it was 1° F the night my wife and I visited, we’d have liked a real flame more, still I’m not making fun. One of the most wonderful aspects of living in Chicago is its celebration of, well, celebrations. Any excuse for a libation will do. Certainly a cold night will do.

But enough civic pride. When we arrived at The Sable, I explained we were on a mission—I might have said… “from Gawd” in that Blues Brothers way, but everyone has heard that around here so it’s understood. The cocktail menu rebuffed us. It didn’t include The Talk of the Town, but our waiter carried the recipe off, explaining their bartenders could make anything.

He returned with the drink and news—they knew the drink after all, as “The Toast of the Town,” and it had appeared on some previous incarnation of their cocktail menu. The drink I tasted, however, seemed a little cobbled together. The recipe calls for honey simple syrup, and this version seemed to have a too-generous squirt of honey in it. Too sweet and nearly hiding the Scotch, for which I’d longed.

Fortunately, he’d brought just one, and, by the time my wife’s arrived, the bartender had evolved—or changed—and I understood how this cocktail works. Though I hadn’t had the chance to try Black Grouse by itself, it’d been advertised as a peaty spirit, and the citrus and honey served to blunt, without eradicating, the somewhat leathery taste of the Scotch. Her drink was lovely, and I wanted to steal it.

We have an Islay Scotch at home. It comes from an earlier drink recipe, but we only use it now to illustrate to guests how strange and “challenging” a spirit can sometimes be. I’ve been trying to rehabilitate Scotch ever since that unfortunate evening before I participated with my fiddler college roommate in a reenactment of the Battle of the Greensboro Courthouse (don’t ask), but I’ve been unable. Now, finally, I feel I’m making progress. Why shouldn’t I like Scotch, why shouldn’t it go with citrus and honey and whatever else, why shouldn’t I join the ranks of those in Chicago and elsewhere who find Scotch the most subtle spirit, a gift of the Celtic gods?

David’s Take: Scotch purists would say any mixed drink is an unjust adulteration of the perfected moderated spirit, but, properly executed, this drink was delicious.

Jonathan’s take: The smokiness that seemed so inviting may be the drawback to this. The initial taste is blended and wonderful, but the peat lingers at the finish.

Next week (proposed by David):

Oddly, here in Chicago we’ve been having Manhattan week (of 14 days, apparently… see earlier comments about Chicago) with assorted restaurants offering their own variations. Suddenly I wondered, “How have we missed trying such a classic?” I thought it might be fun to invite Jonathan to try the traditional type—or one of those variations—while I try another version. So let’s hop Southwestern to LaGuardia and New York to try a Manhattan.