I was really into building forts as a kid. My friend Tim and I would scavenge whatever lumber we could, walking around construction sites looking for planks of wood and nails that we could straighten out enough to hammer our makeshift lean-tos together. And as a result, I stepped on a ton of rusty nails. I never got tetanus from my hobby, but to this day I still shudder at the thought of a nail going through my foot.
So I always had this fear of the drink named after those awful little spears I took in the heel every summer. But it went beyond that. At my second bartending job at a VFW hall, grizzled old vets ordered Rusty Nails frequently, which didn’t help my fear of the drink. I mean, these guys had seen some shit. And so I thought their antidote wasn’t for me. Which is a shame, because once I actually bothered to try one, I fell in love with it.
My best guess as to how the drink took its name is this: On paper, it’s a manly, frightening, tough guy drink reminiscent of an actual rusty nail. But here’s the strange paradox about the Rusty Nail—it’s a delightful, slightly sweet, delicate little sipper.
I like to think of the Rusty Nail as a Scotch Old Fashioned, with the delicious herbal liqueur Drambuie in place of the sugar and bitters. For those who don’t know the joy of Drambuie, it’s a liqueur made from a Scotch whisky base, sweetened with honey and flavored with herbs. If it helps, think of Drambuie as being in the same family as Chartreuse, Galliano, Strega, and Benedictine.
Now I drink them year-round, on the front porch during the summer and by the fireplace in the winter. I never order one before the sun sets, and I usually take mine without a garnish. But if there’s an orange lying around that needs peeling, well I might just throw that on top.
As an aside, I have never had a Rusty Nail ordered by a woman in my nineteen years behind the stick. I don’t know why that is, but I’d like to see it change. Remember, there is very little sexier than a woman drinking whisky.
• 2 oz. Scotch whisky (try a smoky Islay if you want something really special)
• ¾ oz. Drambuie
Combine ingredients and stir with ice until cold. Strain over fresh ice in an Old Fashioned glass. Orange peel is optional, but delightful.
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Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.