Behind the Bar: The Rusty Nail

dale-degroff-the-rusty-nail

For decades, one of the hottest cocktails was the Rusty Nail. But now the simple combination of Scotch and Scotch-based liqueur Drambuie has fallen off most bar menus and is rarely ordered by patrons.

Just as mystifying as its disappearance was its appearance in the first place. The lineage of the potent after-dinner libation is unknown, though it does show up in the 1967 edition of the Old Mister Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, the cocktail book of record throughout the post-Prohibition 20th century. (A similar tipple—dubbed the Little Club #1—is included in Ted Saucier’s 1951 Bottoms Up.)

By the late 1960s, watering holes in New Orleans and New York were serving the concoction, and “have you tried a Rusty Nail?” was a common refrain. The Rusty Nail is often credited to the clever bartenders at the ‘21’ Club in Manhattan sometime in the early 1960s. It makes sense, since the establishment created the famous B & B—half Bénédictine and half cognac—as well. It’s easy to imagine that the talented crew applied the same formula to another cordial and liquor, but I haven’t been able to substantiate that claim.

Lore has it that the Rat Pack was enamored of the drink, which may have been responsible for the wide appeal in those years. In the 1970s, I mixed many a Rusty Nail at the joints I worked in New York. They were also a hit at P.J. Clarke’s, a favorite late-night haunt of Frank Sinatra.

As with lots of classics, the recipe varies widely. Ted Haigh, author of Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails likes two parts Scotch to one part Drambuie; the 1967 Old Mister Boston calls for a one-to-one ratio; and the modern version is far drier, suggesting four parts whisky to one part liqueur. That’s not to mention that you can substitute bourbon for Scotch and get a Rusty Spike.

The new Drambuie 15 ($60) has a base of 15-year-old Speyside single malts and is much drier than the original bottling. In fact, it tastes like a well-made Rusty Nail!

Master mixologist Dale DeGroff is the author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. He is also a Liquor.com advisory board member.

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