Friday, August 14, 2009

The Point of a Rusty Nail

One of the interesting repercussions of the Cocktail Renaissance is that is has caused dusty old liqueur brands, worried about missing the marketing boat, to cling anew to the faded cocktails that once brought them fame and cash. Cherry Heering talks up the Singapore Sling. Galliano likes to bring up the Harvey Wallbanger. And Drambuie has a newborn affection for the Rusty Nail.

The Rusty Nail is the only famous mixed drink that calls for Drambuie, the family-owner, whisky-based liqueur out of Scotland. It's basically a slug of Scotch whiskey and a smaller quotient of Drambuie, served on the rocks. Given that it's whiskey with more whiskey added, the drink packs a considerable punch. It has a heft and power that fits in nicely with its heyday, the 1950s and '60s, when men were men and drank like it.

The Museum of the American Cocktail recipe book states that the Rusty Nail may have been invented at a Hawaiian bar in 1942 and named by artist Theodore Anderson. (Could be. You never know with these stories.)

The Drambuie people claim the Rusty Nail was the favored drink of the Rat Pack. I have to be honest; I had never heard this. But I don't doubt it much. Sinatra and the Boys always had a drink in their hand, usually of brown liquor, and some of them had to have been Rusty Nails.

Drambuie feels proprietary of the Rusty Nail for good reason. The drink sold so much Drambuie during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that the U.S. became the liqueur's major market. Drambuie actually purchased the rights to the name of the drink and began bottling a pre-mixed version. The company still owns the rights. You can't serve anything called a Rusty Nail without there being some Drambuie in it.

Drambuie is currently at the end of a five-year plan to rejuvenate their brand. After peaking in the late '70s, the liqueur has lost market share every year since and now sells about half what it did then. They freely admit that their product's image could use some revving up. When someone mentioned Drambuie today, the reaction is usually, "Oh, my grandfather drank that." That's the problem in a nutshell. They want the young, rich crowd that covets their single-malt scotches. To that end, outside marketing experts were brought in to shake things up.

At a recent press event, the Drambuie people showed off their product in a variety of new cocktails (and one old one—the good old Rusty Nail made an appearance). To my thinking, the main battle the company has is in fighting the popular perception that Drambuie is rather heavy-going. Most of today's drinkers chase after light libations, typically based on vodka and tarted up with fruit flavors. Many of the drink served at the press event were delicious, but also a bit ponderous. One called Raising the Standard, made of Drambuie, Chivas Regal, Ruby Port, cherry syrup and Angostura, was dark as ink, and sumptuous. As long as you were eating some meat with it, it was fine. But you wouldn't necessarily want to drink it alone.

The most successful new cocktail was the one that surprised the most. Called simply a Summer Fruit Fizz, it contained Drambuie, apricot liqueur, green melon liqueur, egg white, lemon juice, lime juice and 7-up. It was frothy, airy and refreshing. It lifted up the Drambuie and made you forget what you thought it tasted like. More drinks like that, framing the honeyed liqueur in a new way, would seem to be the way to go.

(Above is a Drambuie bottle dating from the 1930s.)

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