The Dog Days of summer are upon us and with the much-longed-for hope of fall comes the need to shift our drinking habits to suit the season (mind you, I could happily drink chilled Cotes de Provence well into November if the sun holds out…….). Where I live it is always the case that the hottest days of summer come at the beginning of autumn and these “dog days,” which the ancients believed to be an evil time when “the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid” are when we must put aside our gin and tonics and other summer coolers and start thinking about autumnal libations. Oliver Goldsmith, writing his 1766 “Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog” must have been writing in the dog days of September:
This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.
Writing–as he was–in 1766, he just might have had his own autumnal tipple in the form of Dambuie which had already been on the market for twenty years at the time. In July 1746 Scotland’s Bonnie Prince Charlie was on the run, after defeat at the Battle of Culloden had ended his hopes of restoring the Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain. The Prince was pursued by the King’s men across the Highlands and Islands of Western Scotland, bravely aided by many Highland Clans. Amongst them was Clan MacKinnon, it was their chief John MacKinnon, who helped the Prince escape to The Isle of Skye. In thanks for his bravery the Prince gave John MacKinnon the secret recipe to his personal liqueur, a gift that the Clan were to treasure down the generations. An extraordinary elixir that would, many years later, become known to the world as Drambuie.
What better way to enjoy this nectar than in a cocktail know as a Rusty Nail? It is simply Dambuie mixed with Scotch whiskey. Period. Less Drambuie makes for a drier cocktail although two parts whiskey to one of Drambuie is the usual proportion. Scotch whisky has a fairly biting and hot taste that is counterbalanced by the honeyed, herbal overtones of the Drambuie. A Rusty Nail can be served in an old-fashioned glass on the rocks, neat, or “up” in a stemmed glass. In our house it is always served over ice.
While it has been around for over two hundred years, Drambuie only gained popularity in the US during prohibition, when it had become a very popular drink in the speakeasies of the East Coast, due to its ability to mix well with the raw American prohibition spirits and mask their unrefined flavours. According to the folks at Darambuie, these early concoctions became the forerunners to the famous Rusty Nail. Its exact origins are uncertain but we know that it first appears on the menu of an infamous New York club in the early 60s. At a time when the legendary carousing of the Rat Pack came to prominence, the Rusty Nail was adopted by the scene, confirming the drink’s iconic status and establishing its place in pop culture history.
They must have been shipping it all to America–when I was doing my year abroad in college in France, I went on a road trip to the Isle of Skye, determined to buy a bottle of Drambuie, find some loch to overlook and get in touch with my Scottish roots. Not a bottle to be had on the Isle of Skye! I did end up procuring a bottle and swigging it at dusk while sitting on the banks of Loch Ness. It was a moment.
My husband assures me that a dry Rusty Nail is the perfect autumn cocktail, suitable for dog days, mad dogs and even the hair of the dog, as sure a cure for tetanus as it is for rabies…..but do use a decent whiskey.
The Rusty Nail
1 1/2 oz Blended Whiskey (Dewars will do nicely)
1/2 oz Drambuie
Mix well and serve over ice in a chilled Old-Fashioned glass