This article is part of a cocktail history series, sponsored by Johnnie Walker. Discover more about classic Scotch cocktails here!
If a cocktail is named after someone, that someone probably had very little to do with the actual cocktail’s creation. Such is the case with Robert Roy MacGregor, a 17th-century outlaw often cited as a sort of Scottish Robin Hood for leading battles against noblemen in the Highlands. After his death he became such a folk hero, in fact, that an operetta — also called Rob Roy — was written about him, debuting on Broadway in 1894. Like many shows of the era, it would need an accompanying drink.
Just around the block from Herald Square Theatre, on Fifth Avenue where the Empire State Building stands today, was the newly built Waldorf-Astoria. The ritzy hotel had already laid claim to quite a few popular cocktails of the time and, indeed, today most drinks annals typically give it credit for the Rob Roy as well. At the same time, there are many other cocktail writers who will point to another luxury lodging, the Fifth Avenue Hotel, down by Madison Square, as the birthplace of the Rob Roy.
(And neither of those was truly the first Rob Roy cocktail — one with brandy, Angostura bitters, and orgeat had been fashioned by legendary New York barman E. F. Barry in the early 1870s.)
It’s very possible that those midtown bartenders may have borrowed the recipe from the opposite shores of the Hudson River. In recent years, drinks historian David Wondrich has found evidence that one Henry A. Orphal stirred up an impromptu Rob Roy while working at Duke’s House in Hoboken, N.J., just across the street from the Manhattan ferry, around 1895. A blended Scotch whisky salesman came in wanting a Manhattan, but according to his own company’s policy, it was unethical for him to drink anything not containing his own whisky. Orphal’s solution was to swap in 2 ounces of Scotch alongside the sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.
“[T]he drink is good, a name is suggested, and done,” writes Wondrich.
The drink was good. Yes, essentially a Manhattan for a Scotch lover, it’s never become as ubiquitous as that American whiskey-based cocktail, but many drinkers prefer it. That’s because blended Scotch makes the drink less sweet and a bit leaner as well. It also brings an interesting depth, adding a touch of smoke to balance out the sugary vermouth.
Whoever created it, and wherever it was created, the Rob Roy quickly became a sensation in America, ordered by name across the entire country. It probably didn’t hurt that Rob Roy himself was a well-known figure in New York at the time — nor that his name rolled off the tongue when ordering it. By November of 1895, the San Francisco Call was already reporting that a “new cocktail called the ‘Rob Roy’ is a Manhattan, made with Scotch instead of rye whisky; it is excellent.” Its recipe would soon start appearing in cocktail books like James C. Maloney’s “Twentieth Century Guide” and John Applegreen’s 1899 “Barkeeper’s Guide.”
This three-ingredient cocktail remains popular today, easy to make at home, especially as blended Scotch is common on bar carts. Even if, in those same homes, most everyone has forgotten the man behind the drink, Rob Roy.
- 1 1/2 ounce Johnnie Walker Black Label
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters
- Orange zest
- Brandied cherry
- Combine ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass.
- Stir well.
- Serve neat in a cocktail glass.
- Twist a piece of orange zest over the glass to release the oils.
- Garnish with the orange zest and a brandied cherry.
This article is sponsored by Johnnie Walker. Keep walking.