There are Scotch purists who would sooner settle for Bud Light than sully their beloved dram with a foreign substance. I take their point (well, half of it – the Bud Light part seems extreme). The most fiercely independent of spirits, Scotch generally does not take kindly to mixing.
But generalities are generalities. I used to be a purist. Then I got to know David Blackmore, global brand ambassador for Ardbeg, the famed Islay distillery known for arrestingly smokey single malts. Once, at a tasting of his product lineup, he greeted me with a shake of one hand and a scarlet cocktail in the other. "Want a smoked Caesar, my man?" he asked. I threw him a contorted stare. Spicy clamato juice mixed with $100-a-bottle Ardbeg in place of mass-market vodka? Sacrilege!
Well, call me an infidel. It was sublime. The whisky's heady peat essence infused the juice with an essence of fire-roasted tomato, and Ardbeg's classic bacon-like overtone meshed beautifully with the clam flavour, like potable paella cooked over an open flame. The recipe: Mix 1 1/2 ounces Ardbeg with three or four ounces clamato juice on ice, then garnish with a celery stick. I have since mixed the same drink, occasionally using other smokey Islay whiskies (sorry, David), for house guests. The verdict is always the same: better than a vodka Caesar.
Months later, I had a second epiphany: Johnnie Walker Red with cold, unsweetened green tea (one part Scotch to three parts tea, on the rocks). It's big in China. And, like acupuncture, dim sum and resource-sector takeovers, it could soon be big here.
I concede that the Scotch-cocktail canon may be littered with more travesties than triumphs. There is, for example, the Rusty Nail, an overlapping mix of Scotch and Scotch-based Drambuie liqueur that comes in the same colour as the veneer-wood rec rooms of its heyday. To me it has all the appeal of a Tim Hortons cruller between slices of oven-fresh sourdough: Give me one or the other, not both in a sandwich. The more obscure Godfather marries Scotch and Italian amaretto liqueur. Why, I don't know. I suspect it was a shotgun wedding, but at least it's an offer we can safely refuse.
And of course there is the Scotch and soda. But let's just call it what it is: a whisky spritzer, as pointless as a wine spritzer. My first brush with that "venerable" highball, as a home-alone 14-year-old experimenting with adulthood in Dad's wood-panelled bar, turned me off liquor for at least a week. It induces a similar response today.
Nelson Simmonds, bar manager at the Highlander Pub in Ottawa's Byward Market, where all the staff and managers proudly prance around in kilts, has sampled many a catastrophe and lived to forget the hangovers. One memorable surprise, he recounts, is the Queen's Rifle, featured on the Highlander list: It's equal parts Scotch and gin on ice. He admits it doesn't exactly get the cash register ringing. "I always thought it sounded disgusting until, one year, I was at the bar for my birthday and one of my colleagues made me shoot one," he says. "It actually tastes pretty good."
More my speed is one of Simmonds's favourites, the smoky martini, with highly peated Scotch standing in for dry vermouth. He takes his with vodka, but I think gin works equally well – just a wee splash, otherwise you're within range of the Queen's Rifle.
Another fine Gaelic spin on a classic is the Rob Roy, which is made like a Manhattan but with Scotch in place of rye or bourbon (two parts whisky to one part red vermouth with a dash of Angostura bitters). It has proved so compelling around the world that it merits a place on the all-time hit parade, perhaps Scottish whisky's finest cocktail hour.
There are few temples to tartan tradition that so staunchly defy the straight-up-or-nothing Scotch imperative as Macleod's Scottish Pub in Seattle. Owned by Edinburgh-born Allen Macleod, who worked in the bar business back home, the establishment pays due reverence to the majesty of his homeland, with more than 200 single malts on offer, a sculpture of the Loch Ness Monster and a "Scottish Wall of Fame" depicting such luminaries as Andy Murray, Rod Stewart, Robert Burns, Sean Connery and the Bay City Rollers. It also prominently features a list of nine distilled-barley cocktails.
The most popular, Macleod says, is the Inverness Mule, basically a Moscow Mule with Scotch instead of vodka. To make it, pour 1 1/2 ounces blended Scotch into a tall, slender glass with ice and add 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice, two dashes of Peychaud's bitters, a splash of Laphroaig single malt and about three ounces ginger beer. It's as bracing as a salty mist on the Mull of Kintyre.
Most classic of all is the Atholl Brose, a traditional "cocktail" from the mother country: 1 1/2 ounces Scotch, 3/4 ounce honey, 3/4 ounce heavy cream and two ounces oatmeal water, shaken on ice and strained into a large old-fashioned glass filled with ice and dusted with ground cinnamon. (To make the last liquid, mix boiling water with oatmeal and let steep off the burner for 30 to 45 minutes; strain through a sieve and discard the solids.) "You can have that for breakfast, lunch and dinner and everything in between," Macleod says. "You could really drink a lot of those if you wanted to. It's like a meal, really."
And it beats Bud Light.