Are you a survivor of the tyranny of the cosmopolitan? Freshly made or frozen, buoyant and regal, it dominated every club and bar, enthroned on the stiletto-thin stem of a martini glass—empress of early-’00s nightlife. Sharing the name of the magazine that championed female libidinal liberation, adopted as the in-house cocktail of HBO’s Sex and the City, the cosmo became an affordable accessory for women—and to a large extent, gay men—who aspired to a lifestyle that was otherwise fantasy. It almost didn’t matter how it tasted.
Eventually, the dictatorship of vodka, triple sec and cranberry juice was overthrown; a culture of cocktails that was idiosyncratic and loca-bar, both retro and avant-garde, took over. Still, however, the shadow of the ancien régime persists. Today’s mixologists can barely disguise their annoyance when asked, “When are you going to create something new that’s as successful as the cosmo?”
Many of the drinks that have been covered here are cocktails that have been around for fifty, a hundred or more years. There are many reasons these drinks have stood the test of time and intrigue and delight a century on from their creation, but the primary reason is that they are delicious.
You would be forgiven for thinking, upon perusing the archives of this little column, that modern bartenders lack the chops to create enduring drinks. But there are cocktails created in the last ten or so years that some future cocktail archeologist will resurrect and hold alongside the Manhattan or the Martini or the Mint Julep as pinnacles of the craft. Perhaps, in 2073, after the great mixologist backlash of the 2030s has destroyed the cocktail culture as it was destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s, some intrepid young bartender will find an out of print edition of The PDT Cocktail Book in a junk store and, after the novelty of actually turning pages has worn off, will set to finding the lost ingredients and mixing up the recipes therein. More likely, that future bartender will discover an old iPhone or tablet and, after locating a power cord, will find something like The Bartender's Choice App loaded on it and set to work.
There are a number of contemporary bartenders doing work that is equal to the greats of the past. Some of them have published books or apps. Many more have blogs. The information will be out there, and if this current culture is lost, someone in the future will find it and bring it back to life. We are cyclical creatures, and everything old will become new again.
This is all a long winded way of saying that I am craving a cocktail, first created in 2005, called The Penicillin.
Unlike the archeology of the old drinks, we know exactly where and when The Penicillin was first served and by whom. Sam Ross, a bartender of Australian origin who had landed in New York, found work at the venerable Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side. Milk & Honey’s role in the modern American cocktail scene cannot be overstated. As 1999 rolled into 2000, Milk & Honey founder Sasha Petraske opened an unmarked door, with a tiny, gorgeous bar behind it and unleashed a wave that has still not crested. Reservations were required, there were house rules, the first of which (No name-dropping, no star fucking.), was revolutionary for a New York bar at the time, and its influence can be seen in almost any city of any size in the country thirteen years later.
Ross landed in New York in 2004 and soon began working with Petraske, helping to open Little Branch and East Side Company Bar, and along with working at Milk & Honey until it moved a bit uptown this year, did a yearlong stint at another cradle of cocktail culture, New York’s Pegu Club. Now, he owns and operates Attaboy in the old Milk & Honey space. As with Milk & Honey, Ross’ influence can be felt all over the country. He has consulted on a number of cocktail concepts, has helped train bartenders from coast to coast, and is generous and engaging when speaking of his craft.
And, The Penicillin is his.
A Note on Ingredients: Scotch Cocktails
There are comparatively few classic and contemporary cocktails out there that use Scotch Whisky as a base ingredient. The Blood and Sand and the Affinity are two in the classic cannon, and The Penicillin stands proudly beside them.
This paucity of Scotch is surprising. It would seem to be a valuable tool in the bartender’s arsenal—richly flavored, with different nuances depending on where in Scotland it is produced. Perhaps it is because the price is often quite dear, or perhaps it is because of the culture of Scotch and cigar bars that exploded in the 1980s and fetishized the spirit with arcane rituals, but whatever the reason, using Scotch in cocktails is often eyed askance.
And, that is a damn shame. When used judiciously, Scotch can be a powerful tool. It is not just for pouring neat or over a single ice cube and sipped.
The Origin of the Thing
Most cocktails can be traced into families of origin. The best resource for this is Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology, and based on Regan’s classifications, The Penicillin fits neatly into the Sours family, defined thusly: Sours contain a base liquor, lime or lemon juice, and a non-alcoholic sweetening agent, such as simple syrup, grenadine, or pineapple juice. If a base of a sour is a liqueur, no additional sweetening agent is required.
At its core, The Penicillin is a Scotch sour made tart with lemon, but then ups the ante considerably for the sweetener by using both honey and a deeply spicy ginger syrup. Further complexity is added by the inclusion of a small amount of Islay Single Malt, renowned for its incredibly peaty flavor, redolent of deep, complex smoke.
Anyone with an understanding of flavor can understand that Scotch, honey, lemon and ginger will work well together, but the genius of the Penicillin is that its easy to grasp flavor origins comingle in a way that is so richly satisfying and deeply complex. Sam Ross has joked that the cocktail is a “cure-all,” and while it is not medically verifiable as such, at the very least it is certainly an attitude adjuster of epic proportions.
With success comes initiation. And with initiations come pale replications of the original. Recipes for The Penicillin are all over the internet, some better than others, but many of them contain time saving preparation steps, or worse, ingredients that don’t belong near the drink, like ginger liqueur. The most common of these is the use of a honey-ginger syrup in place of the called-for honey syrup and sweetened ginger juice. These bastardizations have made their way onto cocktail menus around the country as well, and while they are tasty, they do not contain the true spirit of the drink, lack the complexity of the original and damn a truly great cocktail with faint praise.
Sam Ross, 2005
2 oz. Lightly Peated Blended Scotch Whiskey (Famous Grouse is an excellent choice)
¾ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
⅜ oz. Honey Syrup (scant ½ oz.)
⅜ oz. Sweetened Ginger Juice (scant ½ oz.)
¼ oz. Laphroaig 10 Year Old Single Malt (or other richly peated Islay Malt)
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain over large ice cubes in a double old fashioned glass. Garnish with a piece of candied ginger on a cocktail pick.
NB: This recipe is drawn directly from Sam Ross’ Bartender’s Choice app. Earlier versions of the recipe called for holding the Laphroaig out of the shaker and then floating it on top of the finished drink by carefully pouring it over the back of a bar spoon.
Milk and Honey uses a 3-1 Ration of Honey to Water for the Honey Syrup.
6 oz. Good Quality Honey
2 oz. HOT water.
Stir together honey and hot water until totally combined. Strain into a glass bottle and store in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Sweetened Ginger Juice
To make sweetened ginger juice, combine four parts fresh ginger juice (extracted through a centrifugal juicer, skin on) with three parts granulated sugar, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Pro tip—the ginger pulp can be passed through the juicer a second time to further extract juice.
If you do not have a juicer: Finely chop ginger in a food processor, place the resulting ginger mass in cheese cloth and squeeze to extract juice.
If you do not have a juicer or a food processor, the same result can be achieved by finely dicing the ginger, though it will be far less efficient.
(A week from this Saturday is my wedding day, which will be immediately followed by my Honeymoon. There is a better than even chance that I will not be contribute to Badass Digest until after my return. As the Kentucky Derby occurs today, please look here for advice on the Mint Julep.)