Whisky and bourbon continue to dominate bar shelves and cocktail menus around DC, all the more so as the brisk temperatures roll in and the nights become longer. The sweet, nutty and woody notes of a well-made Old Fashioned cut through even the stiffest of fall gales. Yet for all of DC’s growing interest in and curiosity toward brown spirits, the city is still warming up to cocktails made with Scotch whisky – arguably the most well-revered style in the family.
For one, Scotch (referring to whisky made across Scotland) is often seen as a high-quality liquor that shouldn’t be mixed or diluted with other spirits or ingredients.
“While Scotch has been around forever and is one of the most beloved spirits in the world, it’s known to be by itself,” says Chris Mendenhall, lead mixologist at Quadrant Bar in DC’s West End.
He says he’s only used Scotch whiskies in a handful of the recipes he’s created for Quadrant, bringing up another reason for the overall lack of Scotch drinks on cocktail lists.
“Scotch is very difficult to work with,” he continues. “It has such a strong character to it.”
This character ranges from the pungent and smoky peat of whiskies from Scotland’s Islay region to sweeter, grassier drams of Speyside. The possibilities are enough to make a drinker’s head spin before ever taking a sip. Placing the spirit in a cocktail requires some additional, careful calculation.
“In an original cocktail, using Scotch is tough,” says Ben Long, general manager of Reliable Tavern in Petworth. “The ingredients need elbows.”
In other words, they need enough of their own “oomph,” or elbow room, to remain distinct without becoming overpowered. Think ingredients like ginger and zippy citruses.
Mendenhall is a fan of the Blood and Sand, a classic drink and a feature on his upcoming cocktail menu. It features Scotch, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy and freshly-squeezed orange juice, resulting in a flavor profile that softens up some of the spirit’s harsh edges.
Classic Scotch cocktails are also a favorite at Reliable Tavern, where bartenders guide guests through cocktail orders by asking about preferences in spirits and flavors. Long calls it an Omakase-style experience, borrowing the term from the world of Japanese sushi tasting counters where the chefs take the lead in guiding diners.
Long says he and his staff usually tend to gravitate toward classics and riffs of tried-and-true recipes rather than going for original creation, a technique that’s especially useful when dealing with Scotch.
His suggestions for go-to Scotch drinks vary from the citrusy Penicillin with lemon juice and simple syrup to a twist on a stirred drink like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. He also recommends a drink called The Short Walk Home made with a dash of honey, a dash of Benedictine liqueur, Scotch, bitters and an orange twist.
That’s not to say that Scotch has no place in unique creations. At downtown’s Rare Steakhouse, bar manager Chelsea Wood happened upon the tasty Smoke Signal cocktail after quickly whipping something together for a happy hour regular who asked for something that was both smoky and smooth. The boozy drink features a rinse of Laphroaig whisky, Eagle Rare bourbon, honey and orange bitters.
“It’s one of my favorite cocktails that we made for the menu,” Wood says. “You’re not assaulting the palate with a really smoky, peaty Scotch.”
Offsetting that bold flavor is key when it comes to acquainting guests with a spirit that many are still dipping their toe into.
“The general population that’s coming into restaurants doesn’t really have a palate yet for some of those brown, stronger spirits,” she continues. “You have to find a way to play with [Scotch] and make it approachable and not scary.”
Check out the locations below for original takes on Scotch cocktails.
Quadrant Bar & Lounge: 1150 22nd St. NW, DC; www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/washington-dc/dc/dining/quadrant
Reliable Tavern: 3655 Georgia Ave. NW, DC; www.reliable-tavern.com
Rare Steakhouse: 1595 I St. NW, DC; www.raresteaks.com/location/washington-dc