How to Make a Rob Roy, the Classic Whisky Cocktail Where a Smoky Single Malt Gets to Shine
The Rob Roy, as a cocktail, is also-ran. It was born in the shadow of Manhattan, literally and figuratively, and has stayed there its entire life. It is, however, despite this, extremely famous and often the only scotch-based cocktail a person can name. Why does it persist? Because the cocktail, like that of Rob Roy himself, is the story that keeps getting told.
Before the Rob Roy was a drink, there was Robert “Roy” MacGregor, born in Scotland in 1671. He is sometimes referred to as the “Scottish Robin Hood” and his legacy is that of a roguish outlaw—he participated in the Jacobite rising, worked in some kind of extralegal cattle protection racket, ran afoul of the occasional Duke and died in 1734.
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But something in this story stirs the Scottish national spirit, and his name is revived 84 years after his death, in 1818, for the poet Sir Walter Scott’s dramatic novel about the grim realities of Highland life from the previous century. Considering Scott’s narrator was named Frank Osbaldistone, it makes sense that he would choose instead to title his novel after an occasional but pivotal character in the plot, one with a snappier name: Rob Roy.
Seventy-six years after that, the name is revived again, this time for a “romantic-comic operetta” written by Reginald De Koven and Harry B. Smith. The duo had recently enjoyed success with a show about Robin Hood, and it seems they cast about for similar topics to explore—their stage performance of Rob Roy has little if anything to do with Scott’s novel, but shares a title and a titular character. The show for five months at Manhattan’s Herald Square Theatre until the spring of 1895.
This is where our cocktail emerges. Just over the Hudson River in New Jersey, literally across the street from where the Manhattan ferry would drop you, a salesman for a brand of scotch whisky called Usher’s walks into a bar. He finds several patrons drinking Manhattans with rye, sweet vermouth and bitters. They invite him to have a Manhattan. He replies with something like how he only imbibes the smooth, robust flavor of that good Usher’s Scotch Whisky. Fair enough, they say, and commission a round of Manhattans with the scotch. After what one imagines was a great deal of humming and hawing, it is decided that this is a most agreeable tipple and deserves a name. Someone suggests they name it after a popular Scottish play of the time and the Rob Roy is born.
And so it remains. A Rob Roy is a scotch Manhattan—always has been, always will be. Admittedly, everything is a riff on something (the Manhattan itself is just an Old Fashioned with vermouth instead of sugar), but unlike other riffs, the Rob Roy is almost invariably cited as such and it has this lineage to account for its persistent fame. Probably 98 percent of the time the cocktail gets mentioned is as a way to show off a small amount of knowledge about the Manhattan (“you know, with scotch it’s called a Rob Roy”) and in my more than fifteen years of tending bar, I can count on my fingers how many times I’ve made it.
Choose the right scotch and vermouth, though, and you’ll find, like our anonymous bar patrons did in 1895, that the Rob Roy is a delightful little cocktail and well worth drinking. When you use a mild blended scotch, I would agree that it is merely a facsimile of the Manhattan. But harness a touch of Scotland’s inimitable peat, and the Rob Roy really steps into its own, the vermouth offering sweetness to the scotch’s smoke, their interplay both delicious and unique. It is a scotch Manhattan, sure, but an excellent one, with a story worth telling.
2 oz. smoky scotch whisky
0.75 oz. sweet vermouth
1 large (or two small) dashes of Angostura Bitters
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass with ice and stir for 15-ish seconds for small ice or 25ish seconds for big ice. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Scotch Whisky: For me, this cocktail absolutely sings when you use a scotch with a small-to-medium amount of smoke. Johnnie Walker Black is a ubiquitous and delicious version of this and makes a wonderful Rob Roy. Also good would be the more expensive single malts like Coal Ila, Talisker, Springbank and others. Be wary of too much sherry influence in the scotch—fully sherried malts have a sweetness that gets amplified by the vermouth and can be too rich and clingy on the midpalate.
Sweet Vermouth: For a mild or sherry-aged unpeated scotch, use something light and lithe, like Dolin Rouge or Cinzano Rosso. But for something mostly unsherried with a bit of smoke (my above whisky recommendations), grab Carpano Antica. Smoke is power, and you need a big vermouth to stand up to it.
Bitters: Lots of people say orange bitters, but I disagree, I think citrus is distracting and doesn’t belong. You’ll also see a few people citing Peychaud’s Bitters, a piece of advice that, like many persistent pieces of bad cocktail advice, came from a tax attorney named David Embury in the late ’40s, who wrote a cocktail book having never stepped foot behind a bar. Use Angostura. It’s called for by name in most recipes—and for good reason.
Garnish: As with orange bitters, I don’t really like citrus here. Stick the cocktail’s roots and garnish it as you would a Manhattan, with a high-quality cocktail cherry.
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