For a drink that sounds like something you definitely don’t want in your glass, the Rusty Nail cocktail was once as classic as a Manhattan or Sazerac. In the modern day, you’ll rarely see this Scotch-based drink on a bar’s menu. But, for those who gravitate toward a bitter-sweet combination in their cocktails, you may want to give this old-school drink a little more attention. We break down what is a Rusty Nail cocktail, how it got its name and how to make your own.
What Is a Rusty Nail Cocktail?
The Rusty Nail cocktail is a Scotch throwback to the post-Prohibition era of the 1930s. It’s typically a combination of Scotch whisky and Drambuie, a blended Scotch-based liqueur. In nearly a century since its creation, the drink’s popularity has lurched from one of the world’s most in-demand drinks to a mostly forgotten relic.
Where Did the Rusty Nail Cocktail Come From?
Some sources argue the drink was created in a 1942 Hawaiian bar and gained popularity in a 1950s club in New York City. But, the origins of the Rusty Nail most likely date to the 1937 British Industries Fair in New York, where it was named the B.I.F, after the trade show. Its ingredients and proportions followed a standard formula used in cocktails at the time: spirit, sweetener (usually in the form of vermouth or liqueur) and a dash or two of bitters.
The early Rusty Nail combination wasn’t initially popular, and various formulations of spirits, liqueurs and names were tried in the ensuing decades. By the 1960s, the now-standard combination of Scotch whisky and Drambuie was solidified, gaining the blessing of Gina MacKinnon, then chairwoman of the Drambuie Liqueur Company. MacKinnon threw her support behind “Rusty Nail” as the drink’s official moniker.
The Rusty Nail was reportedly popular with the Rat Pack, which helped to usher it into peak cocktail consciousness. By the 1970s, the drink was a staple of many a cocktail bar, fern lounge and smoky leatherbound chair. However, like countless fads associated with certain eras, perceptions shifted over time and the Rusty Nail eventually became outdated and unfashionable.
How to Make a Rusty Nail Cocktail
A classic Rusty Nail cocktail is made by shaking Scotch whisky and Drambuie in a cocktail shaker and then straining over ice.
Though the Rusty Nail is often kept to only two ingredients, and a huge part of its popularity came from its simplicity and ability to be easily mixed in a glass, a dash of Angostura bitters is recommended for those who prefer a less-sweet drink with a hint of tannic depth. If you’re interested in making one of your own, give our recipe a try.
Rusty Nail Cocktail Recipe
Combine all ingredients in mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for 30 seconds, until well chilled. Strain into rocks glass over fresh ice, or single large/king cube.
Why Is the Drink Called Rusty Nail?
Some say the drink got its name from its pale-yellow color, while others dubiously claim early variations were stirred with an actual rusty nail.
(Worth noting, there are also unsubstantiated claims that the word “cocktail” comes from an early tradition of stirring multi-part drinks with a rooster’s tail feather, while the “screwdriver” is claimed to have been named after imbibers using the tool to mix their vodka and orange juice. So, take the “rusty nail” story with a grain of salt. Neolithic Ozieri civilizations were using spoons as far back as 3200 B.C.E., and we find it hard to believe everyone who invented a cocktail was somehow unable to find one.)
What is Drambuie Made Of?
Drambuie is a Scotch-based whisky liqueur, sweetened with honey and flavored with additional herbs and spices. The Rusty Nail uses it as a sweetening agent for Scotch, much the same way a sugar cube is used with bourbon to make an Old Fashioned.
What Does Drambuie Mix with?
A Rusty Nail is one of the only classic cocktails that calls from Drambuie. If you have extra leftover after you make your cocktail, it goes very well with coffee, chocolate and cream.
What Kind of Whisky Should You Use?
Though the Rusty Nail is usually based on blended Scotch whisky, a nice single malt can make a beautifully complex cocktail here. Its name might imply something much heavier and more seasonal, but Scotch being the perfect post-work or post-dinner drink surely demonstrate its perennial popularity.
If you’re looking for a blended Scotch, classic cocktail options like Dewar’s or The Famous Grouse will work just fine. Monkey Shoulder (one of our Top 100 Spirits of 2020) is a bartender favorite, and the blended malt whisky’s butterscotch notes pair well with the honeyed aspects of Drambuie. Sheep Dip is a well-balanced blend of 16 single malts and works great in an array of cocktails, while Douglas Laing’s Big Peat and Duncan Taylor’s The Big Smoke are great choices for those seeking a stronger profile to stand up to a mixed drink.
This article was updated on February 3, 2023.