Should one ever use a single malt scotch to make cocktails? To some it may be a travesty, and in the past, Brown-Forman brand ambassador Stewart Buchanan might even have said the same. These days however, with the new generation of bartenders who are striving for better ingredients and more innovative techniques for drinks making, Buchanan says that as long as the bartender respects the spirit, go ahead.
“I would have been shocked five years ago for saying this,” he said. “The bar culture globally has gone up to a totally different stratosphere. A good bartender can be respectful to the single malt and make it work in good classic cocktails,” he said, during an interview with The Bar Awards whilst he was in Kuala Lumpur.
Buchanan currently represents three whisky brands under Brown-Forman: BenRiach, The GlenDronach, and Glenglassaugh. The respective distilleries are about 30km away from each other and use only barley that’s harvested within a 130km radius. You’d think coming from the same sort of area that they’d be similar, but they actually have distinct flavours that can be harnessed for different kinds of cocktails.
People are still drinking whisky neat, of course, but using top-shelf whiskies in cocktails are very much a thing now. “People are looking for an ‘experience’ and having the ‘experience’ of a bartender bringing together a cocktail with a single malt is just on a different level”, he explains. “When done well it will be a cocktail that will be the highlight of your night out a real show stopper, as we say in Scotland.”
As for his favourite single malt drinks, he cites a smokey BenRiach Penicillin or a Glendronach ‘Sherry’ Boulevadier with orange and cherry as a garnish as his go-to. When in Asia, he opts for a crisp refreshing Benriach classic highball with a dash of elderflower cordial for a hot day. The strategy when building a recipe, Buchanan teaches, is to be respectful of the base spirit so as to maintain the DNA of the regionality and style of cask maturation.
“Even better if you can tell a story within the cocktail incorporating the distilleries history or location.” For example, the Glendronach that’s matured in sherry. “I would make a Manhattan but swap out the vermouth for sherry. The Glendronach name means “Valley of the Brambles”, so using blackberries as a garnish adds a great finishing touch.”
With the GlenGlassaugh, a coastal Highland distillery sitting directly above the beach of Sandend, he suggests a Blood and Sand cocktail, and with BenRiach, a Penicillin. “In the peated styles you get delicious campfire smoke, honey notes, and ginger spices. This makes the perfect Penicillin cocktail, because all the flavours are already there!”
Buchanan goes on to share his thoughts on whisky drinking trends in Asia. “The most sought-after style there would be the darker sherry cask maturations. And that is fantastic for our Glendronach distillery, which has been the sherry cask connoisseur since it was established in 1826. I’ve always wondered if this was to do with typically having more spice and heat in the day to day diet, compared to Europe for example.”
He also observes the demographic of single malt drinkers in Asia more mature. “More ladies are enjoying single malts and with the knowledge of the single malt category getting higher, I do see the market trending towards the smaller distilleries offering the regional differences and niche cask maturation styles.” In the warehouses at BenRiach, Glendronach, and Glenglassaugh, customers can continue to find single malts from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, which fits in with the growing market for old and rare spirits. “In my opinion, Asia is the leader ins this sector of the industry.”
The GlenDronach for an Old Fashioned
Since it’s aged in a sherry cask, Buchanan says it has a “lovely orangey note” and deeper notes of raisin and vanilla, which is able to add a level of depth to an Old Fashioned.
Method: Place sugar cube in a mixing glass. Dash the bitters over the sugar cube then add a dash of soda. Muddle until the sugar is dissolved. Fill the glass with ice cubes then add the whisky. Stir. Pour the mix over ice in an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with orange peel.
The BenRiach for a Penicillin
With BenRiach, which is peated, you’ve got the flavours of sweet wood smoke, honey notes and ginger spices. That’s what you’re looking for in a Penicillin as well.
Method: Muddle ginger in a shaker, then add the whisky, lemon juice and honey syrup. Fill the shaker with ice then shake until well-chilled. Double strain the mix over ice into a rocks glass.
Glenglassaugh for a Blood & Sand
The Glenglassaugh distillery sits on the beach and this, Buchanan says, inspired him to make a Blood & Sand. The Glenglassaugh Revival goes especially well in this cocktail due to its finish in red wine barrels, which gives it a sweet and rich body.