Just a sip of Drambuie may conjure mental images of the Scottish Highlands. The golden glow of the liqueur brings to mind the sunset over the glen, and the honeyed, floral aroma is reminiscent of sweet-scented heather. Most cocktail enthusiasts are familiar with the Rusty Nail, a traditional Drambuie and whiskey concoction, but this ancient drink has plenty more delicious combinations to offer.
Drambuie and Scottish Lore
The recipe for Drambuie is a well-kept secret, but the same cannot be said of the legend that explains the liqueur’s origin. According to Scottish lore, the drink first became known to ordinary Scotsmen in 1745. Before then, it was a tipple for royals only.
The story goes that Bonnie Prince Charlie fled across Scotland after attempting, but failing, to win the British crown. The King’s soldiers were at his heels, but the loyal leader of Clan MacKinnon came to the prince’s rescue and helped him escape. To show his gratitude, Prince Charlie made a gift of the recipe for his personal dram to the clan leader.
The drink was Scotch whisky sweetened with honey and flavored with herbs and spices, and the prince would drink a few sips every day for his health. According to legend, the name Drambuie comes from the Gaelic phrase “An Dram Buidheach,” which means “the drink that satisfies.” The exact ingredients of the Drambuie and their proportions remain a secret to this day.
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The first drinking establishment to serve Drambuie was the Broadford Hotel. The patrons were the first to give Bonnie Prince Charlie’s elixir the name that has stuck with it down the centuries. Eventually, a distillery dedicated to producing the liqueur opened in Edinburgh.
How accurate is the tale of Drambuie’s royal origins? No one knows, but the dram is mentioned in British historical records. The liqueur was the first of its kind to be stored in the cellars of the House of Lords in London’s Parliament. In addition, Buckingham Palace reputedly houses the ancient drink.
The Rusty Nail and the Rat Pack
After Drambuie made its inevitable way across the pond to the United States, it found its rightful place in American history too. During Prohibition, illicit drinkers discovered that Drambuie’s smooth, sweet flavor took the edge off the harsh taste of bootleg liquor. The drink known as the Rusty Nail cocktail was born.
By the time Prohibition was over and drinking alcohol became legal again, the Rusty Nail’s fame was widespread. The reputation of the cocktail received an extra boost when it was adopted as the favorite tipple by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and other members of the so-called “Rat Pack.” If you too enjoy a Rusty Nail, you’re in great company.
To mix your own Rusty Nail, all you need is blended Scotch whisky, Drambuie and ice. To make an average-strength cocktail, add equal portions of whisky and Drambuie to a handful of ice cubes in a glass. One fluid ounce of each ingredient is plenty.
For a stronger cocktail, increase the proportion of whisky. You can add 1 1/2 ounces of Scotch to 1/2 ounce of Drambuie. Remember that as you reduce the proportion of Drambuie and increase the amount of whisky, the sweetness and rich aroma of the finished drink decreases. You’re also more likely to need to order a cab at the end of the evening!
Variations on the Rusty Nail
The regular Rusty Nail is a delicious drink, but that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment a little on an old favorite. Fruity and tangy flavors complement the richness of the Rusty Nail, but you can turn the cocktail into something really special by adding a top-shelf Scotch.
The Bent Nail is a Rusty Nail variation that includes kirschwasser. Pour 1 1/2 ounces of Canadian whiskey and 1/2 ounce Drambuie into a cocktail shaker. Add 1/2 teaspoon kirschwasser and ice. Shake, strain and serve, adding more ice if you prefer.
Another Rusty Nail variation goes by the macabre name of the Coffin Nail. First, mix a regular Rusty Nail in a mixing glass. Next, add 1/2 ounce of amaretto almond liqueur and stir the mixture. Pour the drink over rocks in a traditional glass and serve.
The Encrusted Nail peps up its traditional predecessor with zingy lemon, sour cherry and bitters. Add 3/4 ounce of lemon juice, 1/2 ounce of Luxardo maraschino liqueur and three splashes of Peychaud’s bitters to the regular Rusty Nail ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice, shake the cocktail and strain the mixture into a glass.
Though you may be tempted to add just any old Scotch to Drambuie to make a Rusty Nail, selecting an upmarket brand makes all the difference in taste. MacNaMara Gaelic whisky features citrus notes that lift the honeyed richness of Drambuie. Serve over rocks and pop a wedge of lemon into the drink as a garnish.
A cherry liqueur kills two birds with one stone by adding both fruitiness and tang to Drambuie. Good selections include kirschwasser, Giffard Creme de Cerise, Cherry Marnier liqueur and Grants Morella cherry brandy. Mix the regular Rusty Nail ingredients and add 1/2 ounce of cherry liqueur before pouring over crushed ice.
The Rusty Nail is a forgiving drink if you like to experiment. Try adding grapefruit juice, orange juice, or another slightly sour or bitter flavor to the cocktail’s basic ingredients. If you’re looking for something to reduce the potency, club soda dilutes a Rusty Nail without increasing the sweetness.
When dealing with a classic liqueur like Drambuie, thinking outside the box comes easy. You don’t have to stick to the trusty Rusty Nail for a Drambuie cocktail. Take a sip of the spirit, savor the flavors, and let your imagination run wild.
Drambuie’s sweetness means it’s rarely necessary to add sugar, syrups or other sweeteners when using it in a cocktail. In fact, the liqueur responds well to neutral sodas like tonic water or seltzer. The resulting drink is low in alcohol but retains the layered taste of Drambuie.
If a cocktail calls for brandy, try substituting Drambuie. But remember the liqueur has additional flavors. To make sangria, for instance, you don’t need to add triple sec or sugar syrup; instead, use red or white wine and perhaps some fresh fruit.
Drambuie has a place in tiki drinks, in which it complements rum and adds the spicy sweetness of these tropical cocktails. If a tiki drink recipe calls for allspice dram or Velvet Falernum, replace the ingredient with Drambuie. Similarly, a cocktail that includes Galliano, yellow Chartreuse or Benedictine may taste even better when Drambuie replaces the sweet liqueur.
Seasonal Drambuie Cocktails
When the weather turns cold and icy or you just fancy a hot pick-me-up, warm some dry cider and add it to Drambuie in a heatproof glass. A ratio of 1 or 3 parts dry cider to 1 part Drambuie creates a warming cocktail that isn’t crazily alcoholic. To add tang, squeeze a wedge of lemon into the mixture.
You can also beat the chill with a warm coffee Drambuie cocktail. Make your best coffee, and mix 1 ounce of the warm beverage with 1 1/2 ounces of vodka and 1 ounce of Drambuie. Serve in a decorative cup or heatproof glass.
When the holiday season arrives, celebrate with a sweet, rich, warming Drambuie and chocolate cocktail. Pour 1 ounce of dark creme de cacao liqueur into a small cocktail glass, and add an equal amount of Drambuie. Stir the mixture and serve at room temperature.
Don’t be afraid to milk wash Drambuie. (This technique further softens and clarifies the liqueur. Simple add milk and a dash of lemon to create curds, and then strain the Drambuie through a fine, clean cloth.)
The variety of subtle flavors in milk-washed Drambuie means the drink stands up well to being served on its own over rocks. To create a long summer cocktail, add sparkling white wine or mineral water to 2 fluid ounces of milk-washed Drambuie. Re-ignite the citrus essences with a dash of fresh lemon or orange juice.
Scottish-Themed Party Drinks
On Burns’ Night, Hogmanay or any Scottish-themed party, Drambuie is an obvious choice for cocktails. Unsurprisingly, several cocktails that include the liqueur derive their names from Scottish place names or significant terms in Scotland’s culture. You could invent your own too.
The Loch Lomond cocktail contains Scotch whiskey, Drambuie and dry vermouth. Mix 4 parts Scotch to 1 part Drambuie and 1 part vermouth in a mixing glass that contains ice, and then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
Lemon is the highlighted flavor in a Lemon Highlander cocktail. Add 1/2 ounce of limoncello liqueur to a regular Rusty Nail and pour over rocks. Add a lemon wedge or twisted lemon peel to the drink.
Tempting fate, another Drambuie cocktail goes by the name of Macbeth. Traditionally, actors refuse to say the name of the play, fearing that bad luck will befall their company. If you aren’t superstitious or you have guests you dislike, pour 1 ounce of Drambuie and 3/4 ounces of Strega herbal liqueur into a cocktail shake and serve.
Old Moorhen’s Shredded Sporran is a whimsical name for a complicated cocktail. The drink contains 1 ounce of Scotch whisky, 1/2 ounce of Drambuie, 1/2 ounce of Mandarine Napoleon orange liqueur, 1 tsp. Parfait Amour orange liqueur, 2 ounces of pineapple juice, 1 ounce guava nectar, 1 teaspoon almond syrup and a splash of lemon juice. Shake the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and serve with a straw.
Take the High Road cocktail to your party too. Add 1/2 ounce dry sherry and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and a handful of broken ice to a Rusty Nail. Pour it into a glass and serve.
What could be more Scottish than a Warm Wooly Sheep? Heat 5 or 6 ounces of fresh, whole cow’s milk in a saucepan until it’s warm but not too hot to drink. Mix 1 ounce of Scotch whisky with 1 1/2 ounces of Drambuie in a heatproof glass, and then add the milk. Sieve a sprinkling of cocoa powder over the top for decoration.
On the other hand, why not follow Bonnie Prince Charlie’s lead and sip Drambuie on its own? If you find the taste too strong and cloying, pour a couple of ounces of the liqueur over rocks. Sniff deeply before you drink, and the scent will bring to mind the heather in the glen and the fading sound of the King’s soldiers who have lost your trail.
- Tales of the Cocktail Foundation: How to Make Liqueur Shine in Cocktails
- Punch: How to Use Drambuie in Cocktails
- Vinepair: Drambuie: The Charming Scotsman That Will Totally Beat Up Your Honey-Flavored Whiskey
- Liquor.com: Rusty Nail
- Liquor.com: Drambuie
- Cooks Illustrated: The Key to Crystal-Clear Cocktails? Milk. (Really.)
- Food and Wine: 3 Simple Cocktails to Acquaint You with Drambuie
- Drinks Mixer: Drambuie Short-Drink Recipes
Jenny Green has a Masters in English literature and has been a freelance writer since 2008.