Great Scotch

Thanks to the cyclical nature of cocktail trends, every spirit gets to have its day. Whiskeys are on the rise of late, although aside from the very occasional Rob Roy, we can't remember the last time we've seen a Scotch cocktail on a drink menu. Mixing with a nice single malt is even rarer. And for good reason perhaps. Why would you want to spoil a carefully crafted sipping spirit with a mixer? But don't people do the same thing all the time with high-end gins and vodkas, even older tequilas? Wouldn't working with a quality single-malt Scotch make for a better cocktail experience and maybe open up musty old Scotch to younger people reluctant to order it straight? The short answer, as we suspected, is no. The long answer also happens to be no. That didn't stop us from trying to get a few bartenders around town to humor us.

First we looked to Macallan brand ambassador Graeme Russell to find out what was so heretical about our misguided plea. "Some argue you should only drink whiskey neat," he said. "Others argue you should add water or ice. Everyone should drink it the way they like it, but you should always start off nosing it neat and sipping it neat, and you might learn that you don't want to add anything to it."

We took his advice and sampled a few Macallan single malts at Mooo (15 Beacon Street, Boston, 617.670.2515). Many distilleries in Scotland use bourbon barrels brought over from America. Macallan, on the other hand, uses Spanish sherry casks for the entire process, which accounts for much of the richness in flavor and full body you'll find in a Scotch like their Macallan 12. A few sips into the 12 year and it becomes obvious why you wouldn't want to mix this with anything else. With its blend of dark caramel and butterscotch, it's a complex enough recipe on its own.

Adding water is about as far as Mooo bartender Brad Fichter wanted to go. Even a dash will open up the whiskey, breaking the surface tension of the alcohol. Ice, at the other extreme, pulls everything back together, making the flavors sharper and more compact. The Fine Oak 10 Year worked another spectrum of flavor with a sweeter honey, vanilla, and cinnamon character. Scotch novices would do well to start with this one.

That profile makes the Fine Oak 10 Year better suited for mixing, if you insist, says Russell. "The idea is to keep it to simple tall drinks, ginger ale, soda, lemonade. A lot of cocktails try to mask the flavor of alcohol with fruit or something. In a tall drink, the essence of the Scotch comes through."

At The Last Hurrah (60 School Street, Boston, 617.725.1888), we asked bartender Joe Murphy to make us a Rob Roy with the Macallan 12, and sure enough, most of the complexity we found drinking it neat was lost. "No good spirits are mixed into cocktails," said bar manager Frank Weber. "The purpose of cocktails is to make ok spirits better," he scolded. But do what you want. It's your money. "If you want a Highland Park Scotch 30 Year in ginger ale or lemon juice or cola, I'll make it. But I prefer to see people drink single malts neat, or with a little water to open them up."

Dave Werthman at Westside Lounge (1680 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 617.441.5566) scoffed at first as well. "Although the only way I would order a single-malt Scotch is neat or with a couple of cubes," he said, "certain ingredients can compliment and even highlight the brighter characteristics of a good Scotch while masking the bite." When pressed, he suggested a Cloak and Dagger using 2½ ounces of Macallan 12, ¼ ounce Fernet Branca, juice from half a grilled orange, and a splash of simple syrup. "Both the juice from the grilled orange and the Fernet bring out the natural smokiness of the Macallan while making it more palatable for the novice brown drinker," he said.

So it's doable then, just not advisable. "The main principle is never say never," said Russell. "With younger whiskeys, experiment and try them out. Older ones treat with due consideration. Some of these took us 25 years to make - don't throw that away with a mass-produced soda."