This article is part of a cocktail history series, sponsored by Johnnie Walker. Discover more about classic Scotch cocktails here!
Created by an Australian, in a Manhattan bar, and built with two different Scotches, the Penicillin burst onto the scene in the nascent days of the modern cocktail revolution. It was 2005, and New York’s Lower East Side drinks movement had already helped revive classic cocktails from a pre-Prohibition era, as well as spawned some modern masterpieces like the Gold Rush. If the Gold Rush was essentially a whiskey sour made with honey, the Penicillin would make that template even more baroque.
Bartender Sam Ross, freshly emigrated to the States from Melbourne, and just 22 years old at the time, was toying around one quiet night when he made a Gold Rush riff, splitting the sweetener base 50/50 between honey syrup and a fresh-pressed ginger juice. It was good, but why stop there? Wanting a spirit less sweet and more mellow, blended Scotch was swapped in for bourbon—its malty notes matched the ginger beautifully, both providing an assertive directness. Additionally, a quarter-ounce of smoky Scotch was floated atop the drink, mainly to toy with the aroma.
Served in a rocks glass with a straw, you would smell the smoke from the Scotch before you’d ever taste the spicy, tart, yet sweet cocktail lingering underneath. In an era when many Americans were still learning (or re-learning) to love basic Old Fashioneds and Manhattans, this drink played with the palate in a way no other drinks of the time really did. It was extraordinarily complex, it was a little bizarre, and it was totally delicious.
(Its medicinal name is a nod to the fact that ginger and honey are flavors innately comforting when sick —whether in the form of a cough drop, or a mug of warm tea.)
For the next year or so the Penicillin would remain a New York secret, only occasionally whipped out at a small group of related bars when drinkers asked for off-menu “bartender’s choice” cocktails. Some of those drinkers were bartenders themselves, who built a cult following for the cocktail; soon they started putting it on their own menus. It’s virality would quickly spread across the country. In his 2016 book, “A Proper Drink,” cocktail historian Robert Simonson calls the Penicillin “the most well-traveled and renowned new cocktail of the 21st century.”
Today, the Penicillin is the modern classic, yet somehow a reminder of a distant past, too. It’s on menus across the globe, from lavish hotel lounges to esoteric cocktail bars to even chain restaurants. It’s been riffed on endlessly, too, being turned into fizzy highballs, or creamy dessert drinks. It’s even been turned into a frozen cocktail, the Penichillin, at a backyard bar in Brooklyn.
But it’s also a classic because it’s easy enough to shake up yourself at home. Once you’ve made some honey syrup and ginger juice, the rest of the build is fairly by-the-book. Don’t worry, the Johnnie Walker will do most of the heavy lifting.
- 1.5 ounces Johnnie Walker Black Label
- .75 ounce honey ginger syrup*
- .75 ounce lemon juice
- Optional addition: Islay whisky
- Candied ginger
- Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add all the ingredients. Shake vigorously.
- Strain and serve in a tumbler with fresh ice.
- If available, float Islay whisky on top.
- Garnish with candied ginger.
*HONEY GINGER SYRUP INGREDIENTS & PREPARATION:
- 1 cup honey
- 1 (4-6 inch) piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 cup water
- Heat honey, ginger, and water in a saucepan over high heat until boiling.
- Reduce and simmer for five minutes, then strain.
This article is sponsored by Johnnie Walker. Keep walking.