Rob Roy


Rob Roy, made to Brad Thomas Parson's recipe in his Bitters book.
Rob Roy, made to Brad Thomas Parson’s recipe in his Bitters book.

Cocktails made with scotch whisky are not that unusual, but the general opinion is that whisky is too flavourful a drink to mix well with others, and should be enjoyed by itself. That might be the case for many single malts, which have such a unique flavour profile that it is hard to see them sitting well with any other flavours in a glass (the exception being such modern drinks as the Penicillin, which features Laphroaig), but blends have been designed to have a consistent, if less characterful flavour. They then lend themselves to mixed drinks better than the unique single malts; part of this comes from the combination of more neutral grain spirits, mixed with some malt whiskies, to produce the blend’s own flavour.

The Rob Roy can be seen as a Manhattan made with whisky, but the smokiness and slightly less sweet nature of scotch produces a quite different drink which stands in its own right. Like the Manhattan, a Rob Roy can be ordered dry (with only dry vermouth), perfect (a mixture of dry and sweet vermouths), though the standard drink is made with sweet only. The result is a rich, smoky cocktail, with a touch of herbal & wine-y flavours from the vermouth. One element that must not be overlooked is the presence of bitters. As per the Manhattan, the usual bottle to reach for would be the Angosturas, but I think that something with a more citrus flavour suits this drink better, and as I was mixing my version from the recipe in Parson’s Bitters book I followed his advice: I made my drink with Peychaud’s bitters, although Fee’s Orange would also be a good choice. Garnish follows the Manhattan route: cherry for the sweet version, lemon peel for the dry/perfect variants; I used a lemon peel in my straight Rob Roy: it seemed to me the lemon flavour cut through the sweetness slightly better.


2ozs of scotch whisky (Grant’s in this version)

1oz of sweet vermouth (Martini Rosso here)

2 dashes of bitters (Peychaud’s here)

Glass: 3oz Martini glass, chilled

Stir in your mixing glass, over ice, until well chilled. Strain into the Martini glass, and garnish with either lemon peel or cherry, to your choice.

History notes: There’s not much debate to the story behind this one: in 1894, the barman at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel was asked to create a cocktail to mark the opening of Rob Roy, an operetta written by Smith & De Koven; the barman mixed a Manhattan with scotch whisky, and named it for the hero of the piece. The operetta seems to be lost in past, but the cocktail recipe lives on.

Bitters (3)

The first batch of House bitters is bottled.
The first batch of House bitters is bottled.

The bitters I have made from the ‘House’ recipe in Brad Parson’s Bitters book are now bottled and ready to use.

I was really pleased by the way my first attempt turned out: the sour cherries in the recipe have given the bitters a fantastic fruity kick, with vanilla and star anise notes from the spices. I would like to make the recipe a little stronger next time; perhaps I need to find a stronger alcohol base for the extraction in future.

I have bottled the bitters in some herbal remedy bottles that I picked up on my shopping trip to Baldwin’s, and these not only give the bitters a professional touch, but also make them easier to use. The design of the label is taken from the Periodic Table, and I took the idea of ‘Bt’ element name from the original ‘BTP House bitters’ recipe, in homage to Brad Parsons.

3-4 drops at a time of the bitters adds a fantastic depth of flavour to my drinks, and I have successfully used this recipe in my Manhattan and Old-Fashioned cocktails recently.

I am now thinking about the flavours I want to use in the next batch – perhaps using traditional English flavourings like sloes or similar.

Martini: Bombay Sapphire

20140315-225015.jpgAlthough I still think the Manhattan is my favourite cocktail, the close second has to be an ice-cold Martini. There is something about the sparseness of the ingredients and the purity in presentation that makes this a very elegant drink that delivers its alcohol kick with a degree of precision few drinks can match.

I have seen opinions that state that Bombay Sapphire is too floral or delicate for a Martini, and that drier, more robust gins, such as Tanqueray or Gordon’s are necessary. I don’t agree, but perhaps my view is slightly skewed by my bottle of Sapphire being an export-strength version, found in Malaysia. The extra alcohol perhaps counteracts the floral notes of their recipe; either way, I find it makes for a very crisp and refreshing Martini. Exactly what one looks for in this drink I think.

One other small note: whatever you do, don’t omit the bitters. A few drops of something to add an extra dimension of flavour is really effective in this drink. Traditionally, a citrus-style bitters is recommended, like Fee’s Orange. This time, I used my batch of Brad Parson’s BTP bitters that I made last month. The sour cherry notes of those bitters worked really well here.

Update: another cause for debate here is the quantity of vermouth. I really don’t believe that refracting the light through a vermouth bottle into the shaker works, neither Noël Coward’s trick of nodding in the direction of Italy nor Churchill’s of looking in the direction of the vermouth bottle gives the required results. By all means, add smaller or larger quantities of vermouth, but it has to be there; otherwise you are just drinking a glass of gin with an olive in it. That is not a cocktail. And it is the flavouring of the vermouth that modifies the gin into the Martini.

I stir my Martinis; for a debate on them whys and wherefores of the stirred/shaken debate, please take a look at my earlier post here. I just think the lack of ice shards in the drink, and the clarity of the liquid that results from a careful stirring gives for a better end result.

Proportions (using a jigger/pony measure):

1 jigger of Bombay Sapphire gin

1 pony of Noilly Prat vermouth

3 drops BTP ‘House’ bitters

Glass: 3oz Martini glass

The method is similar to the Vodka Martini I made earlier:

Stir vermouth together with ice in a Boston shaker jar and tip away around half the vermouth.  Add the gin, drops of bitters & stir again. Pour into a chilled Martini glass & garnish with a green olive, stone-in.

Bitters (2) – Home made

The first batch of BTP House bitters is cooked up.
The first batch of BTP House bitters is cooked up.

I received a copy of Brad Thomas Parsons brilliant book, Bitters, for a recent birthday. Besides being a thorough history of this often-overlooked cocktail ingredient, Mr Parsons also includes several recipes to try at home. Naturally, I had to try one for myself, so settled on his signature recipe: BTP House bitters.

Over the last last week I have visited various herbalists in London to stock up on the ingredients, which has been fascinating in itself. The herbalist at Neal’s Yard was very interested in the items as I was buying – not least because the quassia chips (Quassia amara) are apparently an unusual purchase due to their incredible bitterness, so coupled with the gentian root (Gentiana lutea) also on the list – she was wondering what I could be making. When I told her the story of the Bitters book, she was delighted to share advice about extracting the properties from the herbs, and how they might treat common stomach ailments when the recipe was finished. She also directed me to London’s oldest herbalist, Baldwin’s to pick up the final few items – cassia bark (Cinnamomum aromaticum) and vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) as they were out of stock. Again, when the Baldwin’s herbalist discovered what I was making, he insisted in opening a new pack of vanilla to get the freshest pod available to infuse properly. So, even if my recipe isn’t a success, I have discovered a whole new subject in herbalism.

The biggest problem in making the bitters, here in the UK at least, is the strong alcohol required for the extraction to work. Most UK spirits are sold at 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), and stronger spirits are difficult to come by. I was directed to look for Polish Rectified Spirits among our Polish community in London, and the Neal’s Yard herbalist recommended I start making herbal tonics, as this would allow me to register for the purchase of the pure medicinal alcohol required for their extractions.

In the end, I discovered a closer solution to home – a quantity of strong Cretan tsikoudia (aka tsipouro, or just ‘raki’) I had brought back from holidays on the island. Well-made tsikoudia is very pleasant as a digestif, so I thought it would make a good base for my first bitters batch. It is also a pretty strong spirit – not in the realm of Everclear perhaps – but certainly strong enough for my needs. And the bottle I had at home had a pleasantly herby scent (the spirit changes depending on the distiller, and wide varieties of flavour exist across the island and even village-to-village).

Last night, I mixed up the ingredients in a preserving jar, and already the aroma they give off is incredibly tantalizing. The ingredients in this batch are: orange peel (dried and fresh), sour cherries, cassia, quassia, cloves, cinnamon, walnut leaf, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon & gentian – but if you want the proportions, you need to read Mr Parson’s book.

More information in around two weeks, when the alcohol will have extracted all of the good things from the herb, spice & fruit mix in the jar.