Scotch whiskey may be reaching an inflection point in the US; the recent data from the Distilled Spirits Council says last year, blended Scotch was down and single malts were essentially flat, up only 0.4 percent. This at a time every other whiskey – domestic and imported – did better. One bright point was up at the highest priced single malts, where sales were strong. But that’s not where bars and restaurants do a lot of business in Scotch.
Maybe Scotch has gotten much too expensive for a crowded barroom tipple, although the highest quality blended brands are still quite reasonable. No, I’m convinced Scotch is flat because there are so few Scotch whiskey cocktails in common use at a time when cocktails seem to be driving consumption on- and off-premise, and so few drinks including Scotch of any kind are to be found on many cocktail menus.
In fact, think fast – when’s the last time you or your staff were called upon to serve a Rob Roy, a Rusty Nail, a Blood and Sand, or any of the other few iconic Scotch-based cocktails. Even the contemporary classic Penicillin, created by Sam Ross at NYC’S Milk & Honey in the early part of this century, is more a rarity than something to be found in the standard winter rotation. It’s a great drink, as is a well-made Rob Roy, but while Manhattan variants (of which the Rob Roy may have been the first) abound, it’s hardly ever seen or ordered.
So, who’s to blame and what to do? Part of the problem is that those many temples of malt scattered around the country don’t often feature many Scotch-based cocktails. Scotch whisky companies don’t seem to be spending much time creating or promoting them, either. While some brands host bartender competitions, they aren’t often cocktail focused, or they head right to the more weird science types of drinks. One year, a major brand encouraged a slew of competing bartenders to create carbonated Scotch-based drinks. They were uniformly awful.
The odd thing is Scotch doesn’t need a lot to be turned into a great drink, which possibly holds it back as an ingredient. Good Scotch has many layers of flavor – sweet, sherried and nutty, or smoky, maritime and muscley – the whiskies don’t need a lot of fussing with to turn out an interesting and many layered drink. Perhaps the essential complete flavor profile of many Scotches simply doesn’t inspire enough bartenders.
Where to start? The classics mentioned above may be too sweet for the current craft cocktail palate. Maybe applying Islay Scotches the way some bartenders use mezcal as a complementary rather than primary spirit is the way to start. Punches seem custom made for a few heavy pours of a Highland or even an Islay to sharpen the tang, and the bottled cocktails and other batched cousins of punches could also use some tweaking, if the sameness that I’ve been finding across the country in these drinks is any indicator.
And what about the noble Scotch and Soda, the drink celebrated in song and mid-century literature? With a lemon twist, it’s still a fine drink, and perhaps the resurgence of the highball at some places means a few new fans will be seeded here and there.
A recent study on drinks featured at craft cocktail bars cited the Old-Fashioned as the number one menued drink there. In the ‘80s, an order for a Scotch Old-Fashioned (or a Godfather for that matter, but that’s one that needn’t return) was quite common. Time to revive another once popular and quite tasty drink?