Turn back the clock with classic whisky cocktails.
When New York ‘Mad Man’, Don Draper, treats himself to a fortifying inch or two of liquor, often inappropriately early on a working day, odds on he’s pouring himself a generous measure of scotch. Well, what self-respecting mid-century advertising exec wouldn’t? From noir to Netflix, the act of slugging a neat shot of whisky has become the go-to literary and cinematic shorthand for characters who are moody, maverick or downright mysterious.
While whisky has been gracing the pages of American pulp fiction novels for decades, for those of us in the UK, whisky is very much seen as a home-grown, up-market luxury.
Opinions vary on whether whisky is an Irish or Scottish invention. It’s certainly been distilled in Scotland for hundreds of years, reputedly introduced by enterprising evangelical monks but also, possibly, by Highland farmers as a way of repurposing their surplus barley. Whatever its origins, whisky – from a Gaelic-derived term meaning ‘water of life’ – is part of the cultural fabric of the British Isles and, together with gin, rum, brandy and vodka, has a well-deserved place in the taxonomy of international cocktail spirits.
In fact, it’s likely that whisky provided the spirit component of the very first cocktail, after London apothecary Richard Stoughton invented aromatic bitters, which were soon added to spirits, together with sugar and water, to create highly palatable concoctions. In an 1806 issue of the US periodical, ‘The Balance and Columbian Repository’, the paper's editor wrote of a drink called a ‘bittered sling’ – a recipe that blended spirit (whisky) with bitters, water and sugar and was arguably the first recorded definition of a cocktail which would later be known more widely as an Old Fashioned.
Although others, including the famous gentleman’s club – The Pendennis in Louisville – claim the Old Fashioned as their own invention, this simple, yet enduringly popular, drink was already in general circulation by the 1880s. It gained its moniker from its aficionados’ desire to preserve the purity of the blend – a bitters-soaked sugar cube muddled with whisky, a drop or two of water and served over ice with a curl of citrus zest in a heavy bottomed glass – and to avoid the creeping adulteration of other ingredients.
It's not the only beloved whisky-based cocktail. The Manhattan varies only slightly from its Old Fashioned counterpart, calling for a splash of vermouth to accompany the whisky and bitters partnership. Meanwhile, citrus takes centre stage in another classic – the Whisky Sour. Here, bourbon is shaken with lemon juice, sugar and egg white to create a zesty flavour with a rich, silken texture. Of this trio, the Whisky Sour lends itself more readily to experimentation with fruit or other ingredients. For example, the so-called New York (Continental) Sour, again, dating back to the 1880s, is topped with an aromatic float of dry red wine.
Obviously, choosing a good whisky is key to cocktail quality. In the US, ‘whiskey’ is usually either bourbon (made primarily from corn) like Jim Beam or rye (made, you guessed it, from majority rye). In the UK, whisky is barley based – often imparting a pronounced smokiness in the finished spirit.
At Edmunds, we make our Old Fashioned cocktails with single malt whisky from England's oldest and most prestigious whisky distillery – The English Distillery. Based just a few miles away in Roudham, this family-owned business uses locally sourced barley and fresh water from the Brecklands aquifer. After distilling, the whisky is left to mature for years in oak casks to create the best flavour.
We think it's a drink that’s well suited to the autumn and winter months when its smooth, smoky appeal is the perfect match for darker nights, a welcoming fireside – and maybe a side order of Bacall and Bogart.