Oaky, smoky, young or old, whisky is a versatile and highly-spirited spirit that’s been the backbone of the classic cocktail since the old-fashioned was new.

But do you know the history behind some of the most famous whisky cocktails – why they were created and how to honour the great and the good by crafting them with the same expertise as a head barman?

To shed some light on the it all, award-winning mixologist Lance Mayhew has assembled a collection of historical recipes and explains everything you need to know about whisky cocktails in his latest book, Whisky Made Me Do It.

4 classic whisky cocktails

Here are four favourites to mix at home…

1. Old Fashioned

Old-fashioned cocktail with cherry and orange slice isolated on white

This drink is just that, old-fashioned. When celebrity bartender ‘Professor’ Jerry Thomas wrote the world’s first bartenders’ guide, How To Mix Drinks or The Bon Vivant’s Companion, in 1862, his Old Fashioned recipe called for Holland Gin.

By the 1880s, a bartender in Louisville, Kentucky, at the famed Pendennis Club, is believed to have popularised a bourbon version, taking it to New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, from where it spread to the rest of the world. Whatever its history, this is one of the most important whisky drinks around.

You can offer it both ways – the traditional recipe, and the modern, post- Prohibition version with muddled fruit.

Ingredients for the classic: 

  • 60ml good bourbon or rye whiskey
  • 15ml simple syrup
  • 4 dashes Angostura bitters
  • large orange twist and an amarena cherry, to garnish.

The new look being used for "Old Fashioned" cocktail.

Ingredients for the modern:

  • 60ml whiskey
  • 1 sugar cube
  • 6 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 60ml soda water
  • large orange twist and an amarena cherry, to garnish

Method: For the classic, pour the whiskey into a glass named, appropriately enough, an old fashioned. Add the simple syrup and bitters. Add ice – preferably a single large cube or rock, but the larger the lumps the better. Cut a large orange twist, being careful to only get the skin and not the bitter pith, and express (rub) it over the rim of the glass with a twisting motion. Drop it in. Garnish with an amarena cherry.

For the modern take, place a sugar cube in the glass and sprinkle it with the bitters. Add the orange twist and an amarena cherry and muddle the fruit and sugar cube. Pour in the whiskey and add ice, then top up with soda water.

2. Manhattan

Manhattan cocktail with whiskey.

Not only one of the finest cocktails ever served, this is also one of the most famous. The origins of the Manhattan are murky, although some say that it was created in the 1880s at the Manhattan Club for Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill.

This classic combination of whiskey, vermouth and bitters makes it a fundamental cocktail for all bartenders, and a great drink for experimenting with different whiskies. Originally, rye would have been used, but now bourbon and other whiskies appear in this drink in bars across the globe. Take it a step further and substitute dry vermouth for sweet for a ‘Dry Manhattan’, or use equal parts sweet and dry vermouth for a ‘Perfect Manhattan’.

One variation pays tribute to the legendary group of entertainers who put Las Vegas on the map. The ‘Rat Pack Manhattan’ has one ingredient for each member of the group, so in addition to the whiskey, use equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, a dash of Grand Marnier and two or three dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir over ice to the sounds of Sammy Davis Jr. and garnish with a cherry, and even an orange twist.

Ingredients:

  • 60ml whiskey (bourbon or rye are most frequently used Canadian whisky or a blended Scotch whisky)
  • 30ml good sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes angostura bitters
  • amarena cherry, to garnish

Method: Into a cocktail mixing glass, pour the whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. Add some ice and stir with a barspoon until chilled – about one minute. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with amarena cherry.

3. Blood and Sand

Glass of Blood And Sand Cocktail in martini glass garnished with orange peel

This cocktail gets its name from the eponymous 1922 bullfighting film starring Rudolph Valentino. The recipe for this drink first appeared in print in The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. Originally, it would have been made with blood orange juice –  the red colour of the juice was supposed to call to mind the blood of the bulls in the movie. While this is considered one of Valentino’s finest performances, the movie itself opened to less than enthusiastic reviews.

This is also one of the few classic cocktails to use Cherry Heering, a Danish liqueur that is matured for three years before being bottled.

Ingredients:

  • 22ml blended Scotch whisky
  • 22ml Cherry Heering liqueur
  • 22ml sweet vermouth
  • 22ml freshly squeezed orange juice (blood orange, if possible)
  • a large orange twist, to garnish

Method: Half-fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Pour in the whisky, Cherry Heering, sweet vermouth and orange juice and shake vigorously for one minute. Strain into a coupe or martini glass, garnish with a large orange twist expressed over the drink.

4. Rusty Nail

Rusty Nail cocktail

That classic mix of Scotch whisky and Drambuie (a Scotch whisky-based liqueur, flavoured with honey and herbs and associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie) has also lent its name to an entire category of drink preparation: Nail-style drinks.

While the origins of the Rusty Nail are a bit murky, the best theory is that it was created at New York’s Club 21, where bartenders could take the edge off rougher spirits often found during Prohibition by adding the sweetness of Drambuie. No matter its origin, the Rusty Nail continues to have legions of fans and is a delightful Scotch cocktail. No substitutions either on Scotch whisky or the Drambuie, please.

Ingredients:

  • 30ml blended Scotch whisky
  • 30ml Drambuie

Method: Pour the whisky and Drambuie into a rocks glass, add a little fresh ice, then stir gently to incorporate.

Whisky Made Me Do It by Lance Mayhew, illustrated by Ruby Taylor, is published by HarperCollins.

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