On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy explores the Rob Roy, a classic cocktail famous for its Scotch whisky base. He is joined by Adam Montgomerie, a Scottish native bar manager at Hawksmoor New York. The two discuss the many varieties of Scotch, the history behind the Rob Roy, and how to incorporate the cocktail’s three simple ingredients — whisky, sweet vermouth, and bitters — in different ways. Tune in to learn more.
Adam Montgomerie’s Rob Roy Recipe
- 2 ounces single malt Scotch, such as Clynelish 14 Year Old
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth, such as Martini Rosso
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Garnish: 1 brandied cherry
- Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir until cold and strain into a chilled Nick and Nora glass.
- Garnish with a cherry. (Optional: express and discard a lemon or orange twist.)
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy. Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” I did want to begin by saying it’s an old Scottish affair today. Adam Montgomerie, welcome.
Adam Montgomerie: Thank you.
T: Of course. Today’s drink is the Rob Roy, a Scotch cocktail. Cannot wait to dive into that. But before we do, I have a little surprise for you. Something to taste along the way that’s absolutely non-alcoholic. Something quite special given today’s Scottish theme. And these are plucked from my own supply. So for those listening at home who cannot see, what do you have there in front of you?
A: I have IRN-BRU, in a can as well.
T: A can of Irn-Bru.
A: This is hard to get here.
T: Before we go any further, can you just explain what IRN-BRU is, mainly for the American audience here?
A: That’s a lot of pressure for that question. It’s the National Soft Drink of Scotland. I don’t even really know how to describe it. It’s just something you grew up with. It’s bright orange and delicious.
T: A hangover cure. Elixir.
A: Yeah. Never should be mixed with alcohol. That’s one thing I’ll say for sure.
T: This is a wonderful thing.
A: I haven’t had it for ages, actually.
T: You know what’s special about the two cans that I pulled out today? Let’s crack those open. These are coming from my own personal supply at home. These are the last two cans I have in my wine fridge. Cheers.
T: And these are pre-recipe changes. So a couple of years ago, for those listening, Scotland introduced some new taxes limiting the amount of sugar. These are pre-recipe changes. These are the last two from my personal collection. What an absolutely wonderful drink it is. It just tastes like home.
A: What a lovely surprise. I need a fish supper now as well.
The History Behind the Rob Roy
T: I couldn’t get any square slice, I’m afraid, but maybe next time. But of course, we are chatting about a Scotch-based cocktail today. We’ll get into this. But I think it’s very notable that there really aren’t many. This is definitely the first we’ve done here on this show. So who else could I invite on but yourself? Bring some other folks up to speed that may not be as familiar with the Rob Roy. In simple terms, what is this drink, and when does it hail from?
A: The easiest way to describe it is a Scotch Manhattan. That’s kind of where it came from. I did a little bit of research before coming on and had a look at some of the history stuff. Like so many classic cocktails, no one really knows where exactly it came from. Definitely in the 1890s, so it’s just after Manhattan. And I think it makes a lot of sense that people were making Manhattans with American whiskey. Blended Scotch whisky was becoming a bigger and bigger thing, particularly in the United States. So why not put that and see what happens? And there you go. You’ve got a delicious drink. There’s one theory that he was a bartender at the Waldorf Astoria around 1894. But again, kind of unproven. There was another one I read about as well, where there was a competition run in a newspaper and it was a bartender from New Jersey came up with this drink. But again, there’s no actual records of that. Like a lot of these drinks, it’s just evolution.
T: And the Manhattan is such a classic formula, it really is plug and play. You remove one ingredient there — whiskey — and you replace it with Scotch. We’re going to get into that ingredient more and look more at the ideal Scotch for this. But before we do that, just to that point as well, the fact that there really aren’t that many classic Scotch cocktails, should we also learn something from the fact that this has its origins in America as well? Why do you think there aren’t more good Scotch classics and does that speak to drinking culture there in the way Scotch has been viewed throughout time?
A: Firstly, it’s a shame there’s not more Scotch classic cocktails. It’s a wonderful spirit to use in drinks. I wonder if part of that comes from this idea that Scotch should be drunk on its own, drunk neat. And it just wasn’t viewed as a spirit that was used in cocktails. I guess if you look at Cognac as well, there’s not that many classic Cognac cocktails. There are some, maybe more than Scotch. But maybe it’s when things are looked at as a premium or a certain level, then they’re overlooked for cocktails. And I guess maybe price as well would be a barrier to that as well.
T: Some great points you mentioned there, this reputation that maintains. Some folks when they talk about how they drink their Scotch and maybe they add a little bit of water, or heaven forbid they put it over ice. People feel like they have to apologize for that in a way. It’s kind of more sacred than an American whiskey. So perhaps that comes into it, too. There’s also the flavor profile. You mentioned Cognac. I would argue that Cognac is definitely more challenging in some ways than an American whiskey, but perhaps sweeter than Scotch. But bourbon, for example, is sweeter than Scotch is.
A: I guess it does lend itself to mix it more. And that idea of America being the home of cocktails, really, there’s different parts of that story in different places. But really, I guess the cocktail being an American invention, you’re going to use what you have close to hand or whatever is cheapest as well. And I think bar managers throughout history have had that be a focus to make sure the profit margin’s right. I guess that would definitely contribute to that as well.
T: All about that bottom line. What about in today’s day and age, though? I think that drinkers and bartenders as a whole, as two groups, were more adventurous. Is this a cocktail that gets called out a lot, though? Do you have it on your own menu, for example, or do you have specs for it that you have in-house but maybe it’s not quite deserving of a place on the menu?
A: I personally think it’s a great drink. In all the time I’ve been bartending, which is 22 years now — which is terrifying — guests don’t walk in and call for it a lot. If you compared it to, say, a Manhattan, it would be 1,000 to 1 or something like that. But it’s a good drink. II you’re talking to a guest, you ask a few questions. What kind of things do they like? What kind of spirits do they like to drink? And then you can lead them down that path. We have a classic spec in house for it, but like I say, we don’t sell a lot of them. Maybe slightly more because I’m there.
T: And some points to add on to that, I guess. First of all, what was it like in Scotland, though? Because obviously, OK, we’re talking about an American creation. But it’s one that celebrates Scottish ingredients. I know before you started out in Edinburgh, right?
T: And then you moved to London with the Hawksmoor Group and then ultimately here to New York. But was it a drink that gets ordered a lot in Scotland, too, or is that again, just not really the case?
A: Not at all. And I think that’s actually an interesting point to Scotch whisky. We don’t actually drink that much Scotch in Scotland, which I think a lot of people would be surprised about. I certainly grew up and it wasn’t really a thing. You start drinking, you start going to pubs and bars and then you get into the industry. It just wasn’t a huge category. I think it’s bigger now than it’s ever been. Surprisingly, it’s not as loved as it should be. Which is a shame. But I think you see a lot of places now, particularly good cocktail bars in Edinburgh or Glasgow, really sort of embracing it. There’s more of a look to embrace Scottishness, would be it food or drink, which I think is a really good thing.
T: Speaking of which, this cocktail is named the Rob Roy after Rob Roy McGregor. Can you tell our listeners who that is?
A: Yeah. He’s a famous Scottish outlaw, famous for stealing cows and being involved in Jacobite Rebellions. But I think the drink itself was actually named after a Broadway show about Rob Roy’s life. I think it was a bit of a hit. I don’t think it was the biggest show of its time, but the drink was named after that show.
T: Which again, brings that kind of American twist to this drink as well. I’m wondering whether the world is missing an opportunity for a William Wallace cocktail.
A: I’ve seen a drink called the William Wallace before. I think it was done a few years ago for a cocktail competition in the U.K. I’m pretty sure I remember seeing that.
T: That’s another famous Scottish outlaw there. One thing to note, Liam Neeson plays Rob Roy, Mel Gibson plays William Wallace, and both pretty bad Scottish accents. But which is better?
A: Oh, that’s a difficult question. I’m not going to go Liam Neeson.
T: Liam Neeson being Northern Irish, he has a big advantage when it comes to nailing it down. But I was having a look on YouTube earlier and was surprised that he doesn’t seem to put much effort into trying to sound Scottish. So there we go. Just to speak about your current position, because we mentioned you came over here from London working at a very successful steakhouse group. But of course, the steakhouse concept is another one of these very, very American approaches to hospitality. One in which you’ll find wonderful cocktails. What’s it like for yourself as someone who has trained in the U.K., coming over here and also ultimately launching a British imagination of this very American concept?
A: It’s been amazing, to be honest. Something that’s really important for myself is always learning. When you do a certain job for a while, it can become harder and harder to learn. When the opportunity arose to basically move my life from the U.K. to New York, I jumped at it. It’s just been brilliant. It’s been like learning my job all over again.
T: Down to guests and what people are expecting? And what moves compared to the U.K. market?
A: I think all of that stuff. The U.K. and the U.S. are very similar but at the same time they’re very different. It’s down to little cultural things, down to language. The amount of times I say things at work and everybody’s like, “What do you mean?” Even down to tiny little words like bin and trash can. But it’s nice to have to learn my job again. Liquor laws are different here. How suppliers and distributors and brands all work. Just building relationships as well with people. But it’s been amazing. I think if you’re involved in bars and cocktails, who wouldn’t want to be in New York? It’s kind of like we’ve talked about, it’s kind of the home. And to do what we do as well in terms of being a steak restaurant, but also bring in our approach to drinks and our approach to hospitality, I think people seem to really be enjoying it. They like what we’re doing, which is awesome.
The Ingredients Used in the Rob Roy
T: I can absolutely attest to that and urge folks to check it out yourselves at Hawksmoor. If they’re based in New York or visiting, a wonderful evening will be had. That’s also very relevant to the drink that we’re talking about today. The Rob Roy being a riff on a Manhattan, this is a classic drink for that setting. If someone’s making one for you or you’re making one yourself, what’s your most important consideration when it comes to the final profile? What are you looking for?
A: With this drink, it’s all about the whisky. You have only three ingredients: sweet vermouth, bitters, and then whisky. So much of the flavor, so much of what that drink’s about comes down to which whisky you use. This is what I think makes this drink so special, is the breadth of flavor profiles that exists within Scotch whisky. That’s where you can have the fun of this drink. You start off with some light blends or even a grain whisky and go right through to an aged ale, a single malt. They’re completely different. They’re not even, in some ways, the same drink. That’s where the fun with the Rob Roy is. And that’s where you can really play around. You can find what’s delicious. You can try so many different combinations without having to really think about changing any other component.
T: When you’re approaching this and dialing in your standard specs for a restaurant or a bar, you’re going Scotch first and then you’re making other decisions based upon that, right? What vermouth ultimately complements the Scotch?
A: Vermouth is a quite interesting one because a few years ago with Hawksmoor in London, we did a lot of blind tasting to find what would be our house sweet vermouth. And everybody was bringing in really interesting things. Everyone had what they thought was the answer to that question. And when we did blind tasting, every single cocktail that we did across every single person came back with the same result. And that was Martini & Rossi.
T: That’s incredible. It’s very interesting to note that as well because if you do the blind tasting of the vermouth alone, it’s probably not the one that gets picked. With no disrespect, but it maybe doesn’t have the complexity or the concentration or depth of some of the other widely available ones. Let’s not get into even just niche ones. But that speaks to its role in this drink.
A: It’s just so versatile. It’s light, it’s bright, it just plays well with other things. And like I say, as much as everybody came with other brands, we thought, “This is the one and this is the cooler one. This is the one that you see in more bars.” But it just tastes best. It just works across the board. When you’re making cocktails, you need something like that, especially in a busy restaurant bar setting. You need something that works well in a Negroni and a Manhattan and a Rob Roy and an Americano, whatever it is. Personally for me as well, I think Martini & Rossi is the one.
T: Let’s talk about classic iconic ingredients. Also, good on the bottom line that we spoke about. It ultimately always helps.
A: It really does, doesn’t it?
T: Yeah. If you’re slinging a lot of these drinks, if that works on the flavor profile and works on the budget, then that’s amazing.
A: It’s a win-win.
T: Yeah. So let’s take a step back again and look a little bit more in-depth at Scotch. Because as you mentioned, it’s almost unfair to call this even just one style of whisky. There are so many different styles. Let’s start by exploring what you think works best in this drink, and from a stylistic standpoint.
A: So what works best in this drink? That’s a really tough question, actually. I was at work yesterday. And in preparation for today, we made a whole bunch of Rob Roys to taste some side by side. To just jump a little bit further back, actually, what really made me fall in love with this drink was a night out in Edinburgh several years ago. I tasted Rob Roys and had them. I hadn’t thought massively about it. One night, I went out with a good friend who works in the wine industry and went to a good bar in Edinburgh. He is like, “I want to grab some drinks.” I was like, “Cool.” He came with what I thought were two Manhattans. And he was like, “No, it’s Rob Roys and whisky and juice.” That was like a violent 16-year-old. Which is strangely what got me into whisky. I drank a few things. I discovered that which doesn’t happen for everybody because it’s an absolute flavor bomb.
T: Single malt.
A: Yeah. Really good pound for pound, one of the best you can buy if you can buy it, which you can’t at the moment. We haven’t had it for about three months now. But when you can get it, it’s incredible. This Rob Roy was just unbelievable, how good it was. At that point, it just changed it for me and just made me think about all the different combinations of whiskies you could use in this drink. Yesterday we made a few. We did a Johnnie Walker Black Label. And we did a Clynelish 14 year old. And we did Glenfarclas 12 year old.
T: So the Johnnie, of course, will be your classic blended whisky. What about those other two?
A: So Clynelish 14 is a single malt from the north of Scotland. It’s much fruitier in character. And then the Glenfarclas is that sort of rich sherry style. We wanted to compare the three and it was actually really interesting. The Johnnie Walker Black one was delicious, a little bit like Martini & Rosso in that it’s just an amazing all-rounder. You can pretty much find it everywhere and it’s delicious on its own, incredible in a highball, but makes good cocktails as well. The Rob Roy was lovely. But it was the other two that sort of really stepped it up into something different. The biggest thing you notice first is the body, that weight, and texture that comes from single malts.
A: It changed the drink into something else. I tasted it with the team that were working and everybody loved the Clynelish 14-year-old one. Those sort of fruity notes, the waxiness it has in that body as well was just amazing. It’s just an absolutely delicious drink. The Glenfarclas 12 was good as well, in a very different way. I’m thinking of those sort of dark notes, with a little bit of coffee, chocolate flavor to it. It’s delicious, but it really highlighted the difference. Yeah. And it was great for the people I work with who maybe hadn’t done that before as well to taste those side by side and see what a difference it actually makes across the board.
T: That’s so interesting. And it is strange, too — not strange — but it’s surprising for some to hear because that sherry style of Scotch that’s so popular these days, you might say is almost closest in some respects to an American-style whiskey in that richness and sweetness you get from the finish. But it’s interesting to say that people gravitated towards each other, which also makes sense because we’re looking for a unique drink here. We’re not looking for something that’s trying to be a Manhattan as much as it goes down that formula. First I was going to dive into ratios. But before we do, what about bitters here? That’s the final ingredient. How much experimentation do you like to have with that yourself?
A: Yeah, I think you definitely can. But for our standard spec, we just stick with Angostura. But you definitely can have some fun here as well. Peychaud’s Bitters works incredibly well with Scotch whisky and it just plays so nicely with it. And that would definitely be another go-to for a Rob Roy. But you can have fun as well and you can throw orange bitters or chocolate bitters or whatever. It just comes down to experimentation with the whisky you’re using and then trying to pair the bitters. But I think it’s always good to have a standard to fall back to, and Angostura works amazingly.
T: For those listening who see bitters in recipes and they use them, but maybe it’s one of those things that we’re adding to cocktails but not everyone knows why, what would be your philosophy? Or what is your philosophy when it comes to experimentation there? Are we looking to complement or contrast?
A: I think it depends on the drink. The old, slightly clichéd reason is it’s a kind of seasoning for drinks. And it definitely is. Sometimes it can be super noticeable and other times it might not be, but it can also be just that little pop that brings everything together. It’s not always something you can explain. A dash of bitters can make a difference. And I guess that’s where cooking it can be just like salt and pepper. Just that a little bit can just make such a difference.
T: I think there’s a great point there because it’s very easy to taste something that’s over-salted. We know what salty tastes like. We know what peppery tastes like, too. But I would argue that maybe a lot of cooks add more and more these days because you see chefs on TV doing that. But when I used to work as a professional chef, I think that was the one aspect of seasoning that took me longer to learn. What is the right amount of seasoning, of pepper and why? You don’t ultimately want to taste it. So I think it’s interesting with the bitters there and the fact that this is an ingredient. It is powerful. But it’s something that can tie everything together.
A: Yeah. The most important thing with any drink is balance. It’s just tied to that idea of making sure that it adds something or it brings balance to the drink. Like seasoning, you can overdo it. Or it can sometimes feel like it’s missing. So it is definitely an important ingredient.
How to Make the Rob Roy
T: Speaking of that balance there, and something I was thinking about when you mentioned the different Scotches, is the ratio for this drink. So classically, it would be a 2-to-1 Scotch to the vermouth. Is that a formula that you think holds up across the board, regardless of which Scotch you’re reaching for?
A: Yeah, I think you don’t really know until you try. That’s what we say. Originally, the drink, like a lot of historical drinks, started off with a higher proportion of vermouth. And then over time that dialed back and dialed back. 2-to-1 is definitely solid and it’s going to work. If you’re trying different whiskies in there, you can play around with that. Especially if you’re maybe using something like a cask-strength whisky. There you’d probably use less whisky and a little bit more vermouth and it’s going to work. But I think 2-to-1 is really solid and tried and tested. It’s pretty much going to work most of the time.
T: It’s interesting, too, that that cask strength is very common in American whiskey, but not so much in Scotch classically. But I’ve started to notice more and more entering the market these days.
A: No, definitely. With the growth in popularity of single malts, I think you see it more and more. You also see it, not even cask strength, but just in higher ABVs. There are a lot of Scotches that come out at 50 percent or 100 proof now. If you think of a regular blended whisky, it’s probably at 40 percent. So it’s 10 percent more. It is substantial and the cask strength thing is definitely creeping in more and more. Whenever you see a special release from a distillery, it’s more often than not cask strength, which I think is a good thing. Seeing it in the restaurant, it can be misunderstood. You might recommend water on a side with that and somebody will say “No.” Where’s the enjoyment in drinking 60 percent alcohol? It’s tough, I love whisky. But for anything over 46 percent, I add water. It’s hard to get past the alcohol. I want to enjoy the flavor more than the burn of the alcohol.
T: Yeah, sure. I think that’s a great point. And one thing I’ve noticed as well that I think comes into this when I do tasting work for VinePair, is that I wonder whether a lot of those cask-strength bottles perform well when it comes to the competitions and stuff. Because palate fatigue is real. If you taste 15, 20 Scotches in a row that are around that 43 or 45 percent mark, and then suddenly you have one that’s like 60 or 62 percent, you get more flavors because it’s just yet so impactful.
A: As someone that really enjoys drinking neat Scotch whisky or Scotch whisky in water, it is a good thing in that you can really control the flavors you want. Whenever I’m adding water, I add drops a time to get to a point where I’m like, “Wow, this tastes really good.” Whenever you talk to anybody that works in the industry in terms of actually producing whisky, they really water it down. They’re down to about 20 percent. And it’s just all about the flavor, which I think is definitely misunderstood, I think actually even more so in this country. We would sell several high-proof bourbons and generally, people never ask for water. And that just always surprises me. I’m just like, “Where’s the enjoyment?” But everybody enjoys different things. I’m very much like, drink your whisky however you want it. If that’s how you want it, then sure, go for it.
T: But then again, if you do go down that water route, if you buy a bottle of 63 percent whisky, you’re getting more than 750 milliliters because you can lengthen that out.
A: Good value, again.
T: Good to be thrifty.
T: I’m interested to touch upon that first Rob Roy that you had the Lagavulin 16. I mean, of course, I’m also a huge fan of that whisky. I do happen to have a small personal stock. I might need to introduce you to that if you’re wanting to at the moment. But I had not, going into this conversation, considered fully what the peated might bring to this drink. But when I heard you talking about it, I was like, if we’re going to differentiate, then it really does make sense to go the whole hog and kind of also celebrate something that’s uniquely Scottish originally.
A: Yeah, definitely. Like I said earlier, that spectrum of flavor you have in Scotch whisky is incredible. I might be biased, but that’s what I think differentiates Scotch whisky to, say, a bourbon or rye whiskey. It’s the fact that you don’t have to age in a brand-new cask. And again, I might be biased, but there’s more nuance to the flavor. I think that spectrum you go across starting with a single grain Scotch whisky then go through all the different styles of blends into lighter single malts into heavier and fruitier, into sherry, and then into smoky, there’s so much there to play around with. The complexity of something like Lagavulin 16, just when it mingles with the botanical element of the sweet vermouth and that little pop from the bitters, it’s delicious. It’s so good. Have you ever had a Smoky Cookie?
T: I have, yeah.
A: That’s a drink that anybody that says you shouldn’t mix single malt whisky needs to try a Smoky Cookie.
T: And that’s just with Coca-Cola, right?
A: Yeah, Lagavulin and Coca-Cola, they’re incredible.
T: And it’s one of those things that highlights the versatility that you maybe don’t expect because it’s a challenging flavor profile.
* A: I’m talking to people who are maybe a little bit on the fence with Scotch whisky. I genuinely think you can find one for everybody because there are such differences in there. And there’s just so much to play around with. It’s kind of endless.
T: While we’re going down this slight detour into peated Scotch and uses for it there, of course, we can’t ignore the oyster luge. Can you explain that for us? Are you a fan of that?
A: If you’re having some oysters, preferably Scottish ones, just pour in a little bit of whisky into the shell with the oyster. It’s unbelievable. One of the nicest ones I’ve ever had was Talisker. Talisker and oysters, it’s unbelievable.
T: So you’re doing that with the oyster and not after you’ve done the oyster to kind of wash out the shell?
A: You could do both. I’ve done it both ways, but I think it is very nice if you add a couple of drops in with the oyster.
T: Very nice, very tasty. One more hack that I have here, I’m sure you probably are familiar with this one. But I’m always looking for ways to spice up my Martini. Just a peated Scotch rinse on the glass before pouring in the Martini. And then you don’t need a garnish, but maybe express and discard a lemon. That’s incredible.
A: No, definitely. That’s what we’ve done before. You can do a rinse in a glass, you could do half a teaspoon in the drink. a really nice way is atomized over the top. That’s really nice. I think that’s one that people maybe wouldn’t think about, but it’s a game changer.
T: It really is. We often see that with absinthe and that kind of profile can be challenging to some. This is completely the other end of the spectrum, but it’s wonderful.
A: Oh, definitely delicious.
T: Final note on ratios here. While we’re on the peated Scotch, there may also be an opportunity for a split base here. If you want to start to dial that in, split the 2 ounces between starting with half an ounce of peated. Would you stick with single malt for the other element there?
A: I guess it’s absolutely up to you. If you’re adding a little bit, I think you could start with a good blended whisky and a quarter-ounce or half an ounce and see where it takes you. Or you could go with two single malts and maybe go 50-50 between them. Again, just try it. Give it a go and see what happens.
T: Some of those blends, too, we should know as well. Some of them do have peat in there as well.
A: When you look at stuff like the Compass Box Range, lots of their whiskies are awesome and not necessarily designed, but they think about cocktails at the same time. They tend to be a little bit higher in alcohol and just mix really, really well. The one that springs to mind is the Glasgow Blend. That’s just a really elegant whisky that just works in a lot of mixed drinks.
T: If you really want a ball out here, there’s one thing I like to do. You know that kind of week between Christmas and New Year? I use that as an opportunity to pull the more expensive bottles off my home bar shelf and mix them into cocktails. And I love a Johnnie Walker Blue Rob Roy. It’s wonderful. And it’s a nice excuse to drink these things that sometimes we’re a bit reluctant to waste on the wrong occasion.
A: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a really nice thing to do. It sort of harks back to that idea that it doesn’t have to be drunk neat. If you’ve spent your money on something, it’s yours for however you want to enjoy it. If it’s a $200, $300 bottle of whisky and you want to make a cocktail with it, absolutely. Go for it. That cocktail is going to be delicious.
T: Some folks are like, “Well, you lose the nuance.” I think if you’re spending that much, the spirit needs to be able to hold up and still shine in that drink.
A: Absolutely, just get stuck in and give it a go.
Adam Montgomerie’s Rob Roy
T: So imagine now we’re at Hawksmoor. We’re actually not too far from there, physically speaking right now here in the VinePair office. But imagine we’re there. Imagine I’m ordering a Rob Roy from you. Can you take us through reiterating ingredients and ratios, but also the preparation, and talk us through step by step?
A: The first thing is always going to be a quick conversation about what you like in terms of whisky styles and really trying to figure out what it is you’re looking for? Once you’ve done that, it’s just a very, very, very simple drink. We would do two dashes of bitters and an ounce of Martini & Rossi, 2 ounces of the chosen whisky, stirred down and then served in a Nick & Nora glass. The garnish is where you can think about the whisky again a little bit. Our standard would be a brandied cherry. But this is where you can add a little extra bit from an orange peel or a lemon peel, not even in the drink. You could just express the oils over the top, and that can really add to it. I think back to the example of the Lagavulin 16, a little bit of lemon oil over the top of that just sets the whole thing off.
T: Yeah, it makes it sing.
A: Yeah, definitely.
T: Amazing. Any other thoughts on this cocktail preparation or kind of riffs? Well, I mean, it is a riff. But are there any aspects of the Rob Roy that you think we’re missing up until this point?
A: Like you say, it’s criminally underrated. We sell so many Manhattans and unless it’s recommended by a bartender, very few Rob Roys. But think about using different whiskeys and just going to town with it and trying different things. One thing I’d mention, and I know we’re talking about the Rob Roy, but I do love a Bobby Burns. That’s subbing out the bitters for a teaspoon or even half a teaspoon of Benedictine just adds another layer onto it that’s something extra to the drink. It’s even more complex. People just need to drink more Scotch cocktails.
T: More Scotch cocktails. I’m absolutely here for that. But not with Irn-Bru, folks, if you can get your hands on it. Interesting that you mention the Bobby Burns, too, and that Benedictine. We recently covered the Vieux Carré on this show, and it always surprises me how much of an influence that ingredient can have on cocktails in such small proportions.
A: Yeah, it’s very powerful. The herbs and spices that are in there really shine through. If you drink it on its own, it is sweet and it does have a lot of body. That can add another dimension to a drink as well with bringing that extra body to it. But it is powerful and it has a very unique flavor as well. You don’t need very much of it in drinks.
T: It doesn’t taste anything like Irn-Bru, but it’s similar in that I don’t know how to accurately describe what Benedictine tastes, like, without also just listing ingredients or formulas and things like that. But the overall effect is something much greater than the sum of its parts.
A: Yeah, definitely. And it’s like you say, it’s one of these things where you have to taste it to really understand what it is. It’s very hard to describe, “This is what it tastes like.” You just have to try it.
T: Try it in a Bobby Burns after you’ve knocked back your first Rob Roy.
A: Yeah, definitely.
Getting To Know Adam Montgomerie
T: Well, Adam, we’re going to move on to the second part of the show here and we’re going to get to know you a little bit more as a bartender and a drinker with our recurring questions. Are you ready for it?
T: Okay, question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?
A: No surprises here: whiskey. So we have a lot of whiskeys. And again, no surprise, slightly more Scotch than American. Part of that’s just down to what I like. But also it’s the setting that we work in, brown spirits just work really well. It’s just nice to have a really solid selection of stuff there. It’s something I take a lot of pride in, something I obviously enjoy. You think of the type of bar we have, it just works.
T: Yeah. You have that opportunity to push those products and probably introduce a lot of folks to them that you already have some guarantee or interest in.
T: Do you ever get guests calling out, whether it’s bourbon or Scotch, asking for those more expensive bottles to be used in cocktails? Just to our conversation earlier.
A: People are very open to that. We work in a restaurant where, luckily, the type of people that are coming in are there for a good time. They’re not necessarily worrying about the cost of certain things. We make some really nice cocktails, particularly Old Fashioneds and Manhattans with some really, really nice whiskey. Which is great, it’s lovely to see it again used in that way.
T: Absolutely. Off the top of your head, do you know the most expensive bottle of whiskey that you poured into a cocktail here in New York?
A: I’ve definitely seen a Balvenie 21 year old Old Fashioned, which is very nice and absolutely delicious. We have some Pappy Van Winkle and we try to keep the price not too high. And we don’t actually put it on our list because it would sell too quickly. So we keep it on the bar and just hand-sell. But we’ve done some Old Fashioneds with that as well.
T: I mean, great tip for people listening here. If you’re tuning in, you know where the Pappy is at now.
A: I probably shouldn’t have said that.
T: Moving swiftly on then, question No. 2: Which ingredient or two do you think is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
A: So for me, actually, there are two parts to this answer. It used to be crème de peche. A teaspoon of it in a drink just nine times out of 10 makes it taste better. But actually, at the moment, I’m kind of obsessed with pear eau de vie.
T: Oh, OK.
A: It works in so many different drinks. It could be half a teaspoon up to a quarter of an ounce. It’s like that idea of bartender’s ketchup. It just adds something else to the drink and plays so well with lots of different base spirits and just generally makes things taste better.
T: Absolutely amazing. Are you familiar with St George? They have a wonderful one.
A: Yeah, we use Clear Creek.
T: Clear Creek is going to be the next one on my tongue. Odivi is popular with geeks and bartenders, but genuinely, people should explore it more.
A: No, definitely. I love playing around with them and they’re kind of like the purest expression of whatever they’re distilling. When they’re done well, it’s just incredible.
T: And you can get some weird ingredients as well. Go down that route. It’s amazing.
A: Lots of these things work in different drinks in different ways. And again, it’s a really interesting avenue for experimentation. Add small amounts of all of these into drinks. I’m a huge fan.
T: I’m a big proponent of doing that in Martinis as well. But I’ll pretty much do anything with Martinis. Question No. 3: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in this industry?
A: So that’s a really good question. The one that’s stuck with me the most — working in relatively busy, high volume, quite intense spaces, you can be under some pressure — is to control what you control and forget about the rest. Worry about what you can do and the other parts will all kind of fall into place. And that’s something that’s always stuck with me and something you have to do. Otherwise, it could become very difficult, very quickly. That’s kind of the biggest one.
T: That’s kind of the situation whereby you’re behind the bar, you’re seeing more folks cross in the door than you would like. What’s going on with hosts? People are being welcomed and you’re like, “Are too many people coming in?” And that’s stressful when you see that happen?
A: Definitely. But you just have to just do what you can do. What is your role? What’s your job? Keep doing that. The rest will take care of itself.
T: Absolutely. That’s great advice. I could have used that back in the day when I was in the kitchen. That used to stress me out a lot.
T: Penultimate question here for us today. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
A: That’s a very easy question, actually, Bow Bar in Edinburgh. It’s a very famous old-school pub, but with a really good ale selection. There’s incredible whisky on the back bar. Last time I was there, there were maybe somewhere between 400 and 500. It’s just a really lovely place to go and sit with a half-pint of a good ale and drink some amazing whisky. It’s just one of those places that when I make it back home, I definitely go into and just love it. Whenever anyone goes to Edinburgh, I recommend it. You got to go there. It’s my favorite pub in the world.
A: That’s the one.
T: Amazing. Final question for you here today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
A: That’s also quite easy. It would be a whiskey highball. As simple as it comes. Ever since moving to New York, and I was going to say enjoying, but I’m going to say enduring a New York summer, it’s just a drink I absolutely love. And again, a little bit like the Rob Roy, you can just go to town and try different whiskeys. Add lots of ice and some good soda water — done.
T: That’s it.
A: That’s it. Super simple, super refreshing. You can drink it any time of the day. That’s my absolute No. 1.
T: Yeah. A good whiskey highball is a pure art form, isn’t it?
A: It really is. And it also can be the simplest thing. You can go to pretty much any bar in the world. They might have bad ice and warm glassware and whatever, but you could still throw those ingredients together and it’s still going to be what you want. Yes, you can go to the opposite end and have wonderful ice and glassware and all these things. It’s a truly beautiful drink.
T: Amazing. Well, Adam, thank you so much for joining us today and chatting a little bit about some classic cocktails over a can of Irn-Bru.
A: Thank you for having me and thank you for the Irn-Bru. It’s a great start to my week. It can only go down from here.
T: It can only go downhill. And these are probably the last two original cans of the OG recipe here in New York. Unless there’s some other fanatics out there like myself. Please get in contact.
A: Thanks for having me. It was amazing.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.