There are odd memories that percolate up from a misspent childhood and one of them involves this drink, a family friend that I did not trust and a lesson learned. It is funny the things you forget until some little trigger brings them back in full technicolor. The first sip of this drink tonight brought back an afternoon many moons ago, when I was younger than my son is now. So, with a nod to forgotten youth, won’t you pease join me now as we stand and make the Rusty Nail.
This drink is a classic whose origin is not entirely clear. It changed names along the way a couple of times, which doesn’t help, and it is so simple that it was likely enjoyed for a while before anyone bothered to give it a name. The official story says that this one was created at a bar in Hawaii in 1942 but that it did not become popular until added to the menu at New York’s 21 Club in the 50’s. However, cocktail historian David Wondrich traced the basic ingredients to a 1937 drink called the B.I.F. and I have a lot of faith in his work. It only has two ingredients, scotch and Drambuie and since the second is an honeyed herbal liqueur based on the first, it is a pretty safe bet that within the week Drambuie was first bottled in 1908, someone had mixed it with Scotch. To be fair, Drambuie’s base had existed as a personal elixir created by an apothecary for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1740’s, so it is not outside the realm of possibility or even likelihood that someone added a bit to a wee dram before the Battle of Culloden. Whether this occurred before or after the traditional lavender oil of rubdown has been lost to history, allegedly.
It’s hardly worth describing the process, since it is really hard to screw this one up, if it is too harsh add more drambuie, if it is too sweet add some scotch. However, I do like the little rituals we share, so grab your mixing pitcher and pop in 1 1/2 ounces of scotch, I went with Dewar’s White Label and 1/2 an ounce of Drambuie, the scotch based heather honey liqueur from the Isle of Skye. Toss in 4-5 cubes of artisanal ice and give it a good stir to the beat of “Rusty Cage” but not the Soundgarden original, go with that awesome Johnny Cash cover. When well blended strain into a rocks glass over a king cube of ice and express a lemon peel over the top before tossing it in for garnish.
I am not sure I can make a fair evaluation of this one. I should like it, since it only has two ingredients and I like both of them, but together they aren’t doing it for me. The scotch makes the liqueur too hot and the liqueur makes the scotch too sweet. It is the opposite number of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Instead of two great tastes that taste great together, this one is two great tastes that don’t quite enhance each other. Of course, your mileage may vary, this one has certainly been popular for over a century, so don’t take my word for it. I am most likely wrong or at least biased.
When I decided to make this one tonight, I was sure that I had never had it before, but with that first sip I remembered the taste instantly and that surely clouds my judgement on this one. I remember mom and dad’s friends all drinking these in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Seen through the haze of childhood, I seem to remember them having little airline sized premade bottles, but that may have been something else. It was a hot summer afternoon and my parents had guests over, playing cards, sharing drinks. I remember that mom had made nachos, which seemed pretty wild to me, those were restaurant food and she had made them with our broiler. I don’t remember stealing a drink from anyone’s cup, but I must have to have that day tied to the flavor so strongly. I don’t remember many details, but I do recall engaging in a foot race with one of the older fellas and winning a dollar for my efforts. I am not going to speak ill of the dead, but I will tell the simple truth when I say I never liked the man. I did not trust him, and I wasn’t wrong. They say little pitchers have big ears and he spoke too freely around me when I was little for me to forget who he was. I remember distinctly, that after barely beating him in the race, he offered to go double or nothing and in that moment I knew that he had let me win. I could see it in his eyes, that eagerness to set the hook. I would see it many more times in my life, usually over a pool table from a guy with a streak of bad luck that was about to change. On that day, fear was the better part of valor and I decided to keep my dollar and not push my luck, no matter how he cajoled. Like I said, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that day, but I will never forget the way he looked at me when he realized that I wasn’t going to take the bait. The simmering anger there, the frustration that he wasn’t able to hustle a kid. It scared me, the sort of fella that always has to win, even against a kid, still does. He is gone, but that lesson lingers, when someone shows you who they are, pay attention and remember, the race doesn’t always go to the swift, well, not the first one, anyway. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.