Friday, May 23, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Rob Roy

At one of my many desk jobs, I’d to listen to NPR to pass the time. (I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the sports talk station. It made me “too excitable,” to hear Human Resources tell it.) One Friday afternoon a regular program turned itself into “a cocktail party on the air” – Jesus, just typing those words depressed me – with one of the co-hosts serving as bartender. Reaching deep into his dusty bag of tricks, he told a guest, “I think I’m going to make you a Gibson.”

“A Gibson?” said the main host with a scorn I assumed NPR’s mics wouldn’t register. “Why don’t you make her a Rob Roy?”

It was a few years ago, obviously. The cocktail renaissance has since rehabilitated both drinks. (Who are we kidding? It’s buffed the reputation of every drink.) But for decades the Rob Roy was seen as archaic, the kind of tipple your grandfather might have favored. It didn’t help that the Rob Roy lived permanently in the shadow of a titan, regularly referred to as a Scotch Manhattan. (Even I did it.) But the Rob Roy has its own pleasures, and so deserves a turn in the spotlight.

Which is only appropriate, considering how the drink got its name. It was created at New York’s Waldorf Hotel, which given its proximity to Broadway would regularly dub cocktails after shows. 1894’s Rob Roy featured music by Reginald DeKoven and a libretto by future Ziegfeld Follies mainstay Harry B. Smith. Who among us can forget such staple songs as “Who’s For the Chase, My Bonnie Hearts?” and “My Name is Where the Heather Blooms”? Rob Roy wasn’t a smash like DeKoven & Smith’s other tuneful telling of a Celtic hero, Robin Hood, which introduced “Oh Promise Me” (lyric by Clement Scott); it was revived on Broadway only once, for two weeks in 1913.

The name would continue to be an issue for the Rob Roy. I can’t think of another cocktail that has a moniker for each minor variation. Some purists insist that the Rob Roy is equal parts Scotch and sweet vermouth, with the now-accepted addition of bitters transforming it into a second drink known as, well, the Scotch Manhattan. Choose orange bitters, according to David Embury, and you’ve prepared a Highland, a Highland Fling, or an Express, the exact designation apparently depending on which glen you happen to be downing it in. Add a dram of Bénédictine or Drambuie and it’s the Bobby Burns. Make it perfect, with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, and it’s the Affinity, while dry alone is the Beadlestone. No wonder the poor wee bairn developed a complex. And then Kingsley Amis comes along and dismisses the entire clan of cocktails by saying they’re “bearable, but quite unrewarding.”

But use the right blended Scotch like my new favorite Bank Note, with its higher single malt content, and you’ll find sustained notes that a Manhattan won’t play. The bitters remain a point of controversy. Many recipes specify Angostura, while some authorities like gaz regan say they’re never to be used here. Others suggest the more floral Peychaud’s pairs well with Scotch. I opt for orange, as called for in my copy of The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. You can garnish with a cherry as you would a Manhattan, but a lemon twist adds a few subtle flourishes.

And remember, when in Seattle, visit the cocktail bar of the same name. Ye’ll find no confusion there.

The Rob Roy

2 oz. blended Scotch whisky
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at