Bobby Burns

BB4Proposed By: David

Reviewed By: Jonathan

“Hey, where have you been?” an imagined reader may be crying. For the first time since starting this blog, Jonathan and I took an unanticipated stop. We’re both terribly busy and, when illness intervenes or anything surprising, it’s tough to find the time to make a cocktail. Sad but true. So we’re going to be scaling back, offering our cocktailian journey every other week rather than every week.

Policy announcement passed, onto this week’s drink…

Robert Burns (1759–96) is variously known as as Robbie Burns, Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s Favorite Son, the Ploughman Poet, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and, simply, “The Bard” but not, anywhere I can find, “Bobby Burns.” He is THE Scottish poet, an early practitioner of Romanticism, a general aesthetic hero in his homeland, William Wallace with a quill.

A large portion of Burns’ fame springs from his writing in Scots vernacular as English overtook his nation. Though he was the son of a tenant farmer, a tenant farmer himself, and not a college graduate, he rose to prominence in his own lifetime. “I am in a fair way of becoming as eminent as… to see my birthday,” he wrote, “inserted among the wonderful events in the Poor Robin’s and Aberdeen Almanacks…. and by all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.”

Okay, I’m not sure he ever made those books and those lists I never I heard of, but he is famous enough to have a cocktail named after him.

Many Americans know Burns (without really knowing him) because they sing his lyrics to Auld Lang Syne each New Year’s Eve or because they’ve heard a few lines from “A Red, Red Rose.” Even though I have an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature, I don’t know his work that well either. I just like cocktails with literary names.

My true attraction to this week’s drink, however, was the main spirit Scotch. Like Jonathan, I have some unfortunate memories of encountering it and some deep-seated need to rehabilitate it. How can any decent cocktailian, really, sidestep one of the chief whiskeys and the favorite of so many connoisseurs?

That would be like, well, dissing a major poet of Scotland.

My hope for the Bobby Burns hinges on its other ingredients, Benedictine and Sweet Vermouth. The drink from this blog that has come closest to winning me over to Scotch was, after all, another sweet entry, the Rusty Nail. That, however, was Scotch overkill, as it combines Scotch and Drambuie, Scotch liqueur. The Bobby Burns promises something like the Vieux Carré, a Manhattan style concoction. There’s no fruit—so no distraction from the spirits—but Scotch purists probably oppose even this much adulteration.

2 oz. Highland malt scotch
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Bénédictine

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and strain into a chilled glass.

The Bobby Burns is the creation of Dale DeGroff, author of The Essential Cocktail and one of the favorites of this blog. For my version, I chose Glenmorangie, a reasonably priced single-malt that, as the picture indicates, even came with two nifty glasses. Right now, some reader is probably saying, “Hey, those glasses are for Scotch, not some wifty sweet drink” or, alternately, “Hey, what do you work for Glenmorangie, or what?” I’ll accept either insult if, at long last, I’ve found a palatable use for Scotland’s most famous export.

Here’s Jonathan’s Review:

bobbyjbmIn the last drink review David quoted Stephen Dedalus and for this drink he proposed one (purportedly) named for the Ploughman Poet, Robert Burns. I sense that I have exited the cocktail blog world and entered an English literature course. Of course he says he was looking for a successful Scotch based cocktail, but that is too simple.

Our close followers probably noticed we missed a week. That was my fault. Between a bad cold and work obligations, I never had a night when I could, or wanted to, try the cocktail or any alcohol at all. There are those that claim a medicinal benefit to liquors. In fact it kept the distilling industry alive during prohibition to some extent. I even cited that medicinal claim at one point when I noted that our Dad had a sore throat/cold cure that consisted of bourbon, honey, lemon juice and occasionally onion. I still think that was to induce his whining children to fall asleep and have never looked to spirits for their curative properties. The end result was that it took me two weeks to try the Bobby Burns and any opinion I express should be couched in terms of still limited tasting abilities.

Scotch based drinks are a short list and I think I have an idea why. Scotch is very assertive and doesn’t play well with others. There was hope though as this mix with sweet Vermouth and Benedictine had more promise than the others we have tried.

I used a blended Highland Scotch, Dewar’s, to try and tamp down the assertiveness. It still overcame the sweetness and herbal tones of the other additions. If you like Scotch, my guess is that those additions would be unwanted distractions and if you do not favor Scotch they are not enough. It was better than any Scotch drink we have tried, which is saying something, but my recommendation would still be to leave the Scotch neat, on ice, or alone.

Jonathan’s take: The Bobby Burns is a lovely Fall color but Scotch was not the medicine I needed.

David’s take: Maybe Scotch is the loner of the spirits.

Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):

I love Fall which should be apparent from my past drink selections (and that I have said that before). My love does not include pumpkin beers or the abominations that are committed in the world of coffee concoctions, but the rest of the tastes of the season are great. And what says Fall more than Better Homes & Gardens? I am going back to that source for the Grand Autumn cocktail. Made with rye whiskey, St. Germain, lime juice and ginger beer, I hope that it can be enjoyed on a crisp October evening with nice fire in my new fire pit.

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.