In July 1746, John MacKinnon helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. In thanks, the prince gave MacKinnon the secret recipe to his personal liqueur, later known as Drambuie. An aged Scottish malt whiskey blended with heather honey and herbs — anise? nutmeg? saffron? It remains a secret — Drambuie had become a popular mixer by the end of Prohibition, the anchor to the famous Rusty Nail and a way to make cheap hooch more palatable.
As with many Prohibition-era liquors and cocktails, it has enjoyed a new vogue, sometimes sipped solo as a cordial, and sometimes anchoring a cutting-edge craft cocktail.
Recently at Iberian Rooster in St. Petersburg, four of the area’s top bartenders came together for a cutthroat cocktail competition featuring the historic liqueur. The winner, Ryan O’Neill of Copper Shaker in St. Petersburg, was chosen by the evening’s attendees as well as a panel of judges that included Drambuie brand ambassador Vance Henderson. O’Neill wins a trip to Scotland to retrace the history of Drambuie from the Isle of Skye to the contemporary cocktail scene in Edinburgh, but almost as important were the bragging rights at coming out tops in such a "spirited" competition.
O’Neill described his thought process as he prepared his drink: the Out of the Skye, featuring Drambuie, Monkey Shoulder (a Scotch), cranberry ginger syrup, meyer lemon juice, Angostura bitters, egg white and an oloroso sherry rinse.
"I thought of a Rusty Nail, but also my personal favorite, a whiskey sour. The cranberry and ginger give it a seasonal feel and sweet spice, with egg white for smoothness. The sherry is for the nose because egg white can lend an unwanted smell."
The result? A pretty pale pink drink on ice, sweet and tart with a whiskey sour’s depth and a little lush texture from the egg white.
I was smitten, but there were some other humdingers. Nearby, Brenda Terry, who bartends now at Tampa Yacht & Country Club but was previously at Ciro’s and Fodder & Shine, concocted what she called a Brigadoon Boba.
"I know Brigadoon from the movie I watched with my mom. It’s about a perfect place, lost in time, which makes me think of my travels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, where I drank tons of boba. This was an effort to see if I could just use Drambuie as the only liquor, to really showcase the spirit."
Boba pearls at the bottom, the drink paired Drambuie with jasmine green tea, lime juice, a sweet lychee syrup, sweetened condensed milk for lushness, red curry powder and a bit of Angostura bitters. With a curry-forward nose, the drink was balanced and rich, a pastel parasol peeking out the top.
Lauren Klemm, who works at Mise en Place and Ciro’s, had concocted what she called Melvina’s Luck, based on a Scottish myth. Super light and delicate, the drink married Drambuie with Hendrick’s gin, a pear/bergamot/basil syrup, lime juice heightened with fragrant kaffir lime and a splash of lemongrass and basil seed soda.
And the evening’s fourth bartender and O’Neill’s colleague at Copper Shaker, Tony Finotti had fashioned something he called Dram Slam, Thank You Man.
"For this I made a roasted chestnut orgeat (a syrup), which goes with Drambuie’s deep honey heather flavor as a fall drink. Drambuie is traditionally thought of as a modifier, but there’s a movement to make a liqueur like this more central. My drink has 2 ounces of Drambuie, so it does not sit in the passenger seat behind somebody else."
Whew, four seriously interesting cocktails, all very different, with Henderson as master of ceremonies. Sponsored by Drambuie and Chilled Magazine, the competition is in its second year. This was a first time for Tampa Bay, ably showing the versatility of this liqueur as well as the talent among area mixologists.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.