In our city's bid to become alcoholically supreme, drink descriptions read like things from an Iron Chef battle—a laundry list of newfangled ingredients, purees, and luxury vodkas. But if a bartender would take the time to experiment with the spirits and herbal liqueurs already behind him, he could build a tasty-ass drink with less effort. This week's installment of my series on forgotten bottles of the back bar celebrates the squat little antique-looking one with the funny name: Drambuie.
I had a $14 cocktail the other day that bragged about the inclusion of the très cher Grand Marnier 150 Year as well as vanilla vodka, truffle honey, and a few other things. I couldn't taste a lick of the pricey spirit. All I could think was that the cocktail would be perfect if the tender had substituted a half-ounce of my darling Drambuie for half the elaborate ingredients.
The mellowest of all the herbal liqueurs, Drambuie is a blend of Scotch whisky, island honey, herbs, and spices. It doesn't burn going down the gullet. It smells of wildflowers, reminding me of blackberry or fireweed honey. And it hints at sweet anise, saffron, and clove, though none of those aromas is intense enough to make a positive ID—that's why I love it. Drambuie smells like a sexy perfume: understated, musky, and meant for dabbing on a long neck.
I like Drambuie neat. It's the perfect sipping shot if you've never grown accustomed to Scotch or brandy. The Rusty Nail, which uses one part Drambuie for two parts Scotch, is the most famous drink using the liqueur. The concept is meant to make a more palatable sipping drink out of a stronger spirit—a Beautiful (half cognac, half Grand Marnier) with an ugly name. In fact, if you want to tone down the orange note in many drink recipes, Drambuie can pinch-hit for Cointreau and Grand Marnier (cognac-based liqueurs loaded with orange). I like to upgrade the tequila in my margarita, so I always ask the bartender to use Drambuie instead of Cointreau, the better to taste my Herradura.
Every herbal liqueur maker touts, to varying degrees of the ridiculous, the secrecy of its recipe. Drambuie's own legend (read the whole epic at www.drambuie.com) holds up at least partly true. The liqueur is said to have been created for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who sailed to Scotland to raise an army because he was obsessed with restoring the House of Stuart (Elizabeth I, William and Mary) to the throne of England. The recipe endured in Scotland thanks to the McKinnon clan, who guarded and propagated it.
My favorite Drambuie recipe deals with the tragic, less marketable part of Prince Charles' tale. The Stuart prince was unsuccessful in his bid for the English throne. Though he made it within 100 miles of London, Charles' lack of tactical skill squandered the hardy Scottish army he had raised. He fled the country disguised as a maid, adding a different significance to his nickname, "Bonnie Prince Charlie." The Bonnie Prince Charlie mixes 1 ounce each of scotch and Drambuie with a splash of ginger beer, followed by a hefty dash of bitters, which must have been how ole Charlie felt about running away dressed as a girl.