Bottle #65: Drambuie

May 28, 2024

Bottle #65 is Drambuie, and it was a bottle that I was really excited to see in Reveal #12, because I have a full-size vintage bottle of it just waiting to be compared! It’s also just a really tasty liqueur with a great backstory.

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While the story is perhaps a little better documented than average, it’s just as mythological sounding as many of the other liqueurs I’ve talked about so far, like Benedictine and Tia Maria. In this case, the hero with the secret recipe was Prince Charles Edward, whose name is emblazoned across the top of my tiny bottle. Better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, he was a member of the house of Stuart, and in 1745 he traveled to Scotland in the hopes of staging a rebellion and restoring his family to the throne. To fortify himself for the task, the Prince drank a few drops each day of a non-alcoholic essence of herbs and spices.

Unfortunately, the Prince’s rebellion failed, and he fled to the Isle of Skye. There, the good people of Clan MacKinnon sheltered the Prince, and eventually helped him escape. You probably guess how this ends: the Prince gifted the secret recipe to the clan leader, John MacKinnon, and it was passed down through the generations.

And then, one hundred years later, one of the MacKinnons handed over the recipe to a friend and hotel owner named John Ross, to “see if there was anything he could do with it.” His resulting liqueur was so good that his test subjects declared it “the drink that satisfies,” a phrase that sounds a lot like Drambuie in Gaelic.

John’s son James registered the name in 1893, and after his early death in 1902, his wife Eleanor managed to keep the company going. She began working with a man named Malcolm MacKinnon (sadly no relation to the original clan!) to hone and refine the recipe, and in 1914 he (or they, depending on whose story you read) established the Drambuie Liquor Company Ltd. For the next 100 hundred years the company stayed with the MacKinnon family, before being sold to William Grant and Sons in 2014.

The company claims that the Drambuie we drink today is still made from the same recipe that was finalized in the early 1900s. It’s a mix of grain and malt whiskeys flavored with a highly concentrated proprietary “herbal essence” and sweetened with a sugar blend that includes heather honey and a touch of glycerin. All else is a secret!

If you’re familiar with Drambuie at all, it’s most likely because of the Rusty Nail. This two-ingredient cocktail combines Scotch whiskey and Drambuie. It’s purported to have been created in the 1960s by bartenders at the 21 Club, the same New York bar where the Benedictine and Brandy was invented in the 1930s – see Bottle #17 for more on that! The drink was a big hit with the Rat Pack, fueling its popularity though the 60s and 70s.

That’s the era of the full-size vintage bottle I have. Specifically, it’s almost certainly from 1977 to 1979, based on its tax strip combined with the fact that the volume is listed as 23/32nds of a quart, so it’s before the US went metric in 1980.

My tiny bottle is trickier to date. It looks a lot like its full-sized buddy, but much simpler. Which you could attribute to it being a tiny bottle, but I don’t think that’s it. I’ve found a lot of mini versions of this online that look like the big one, with a neck wrapper, and tons of flowery language about its history and roots in 1745.

Narrowing the date down further is hard. If you look closely at older bottles, you can see some differences from the 60s to the 90s, but you have to look really closely. My bottle has metric measures and ABV rather than proof, so it’s definitely after 1980. If I had to guess, I’d say 1990s. At the end of the 90s they radically changed the label to try to give it a more modern look, and I can see how this simpler label might have been a step along that path. The branding updates came fast and furious after that, and in their most recent revision they’ve gone back to something that’s more in keeping with their classic look, just modernized. I’m looking forward to trying a few different bottlings side-by-side!

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Bottle #65: Drambuie

May 28, 2024 |

Bottle #65 is Drambuie, and it was a bottle that I was really excited to see in Reveal #12, because I have a full-size vintage bottle of it just waiting to be compared!

It’s also just a really tasty liqueur with a great backstory. While the story is perhaps a little better documented than average, it’s just as mythological sounding as many of the other liqueurs I’ve talked about so far, like Benedictine and Tia Maria. In this case, the hero with the secret recipe was Prince Charles Edward, whose name is emblazoned across the top of my tiny bottle. Better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, he was a member of the house of Stuart, and in 1745 he traveled to Scotland in the hopes of staging a rebellion and restoring his family to the throne. To fortify himself for the task, the Prince drank a few drops each day of a non-alcoholic essence of herbs and spices.

Unfortunately, the Prince’s rebellion failed, and he fled to the Isle of Skye. There, the good people of Clan MacKinnon sheltered the Prince, and eventually helped him escape. You probably guess how this ends: the Prince gifted the secret recipe to the clan leader, John MacKinnon, and it was passed down through the generations.

And then, one hundred years later, one of the MacKinnons handed over the recipe to a friend and hotel owner named John Ross, to “see if there was anything he could do with it.” His resulting liqueur was so good that his test subjects declared it “the drink that satisfies,” a phrase that sounds a lot like Drambuie in Gaelic.

John’s son James registered the name in 1893, and after his early death in 1902, his wife Eleanor managed to keep the company going. She began working with a man named Malcolm MacKinnon (sadly no relation to the original clan!) to hone and refine the recipe, and in 1914 he (or they, depending on whose story you read) established the Drambuie Liquor Company Ltd. For the next 100 hundred years the company stayed with the MacKinnon family, before being sold to William Grant and Sons in 2014.

The company claims that the Drambuie we drink today is still made from the same recipe that was finalized in the early 1900s. It’s a mix of grain and malt whiskeys flavored with a highly concentrated proprietary “herbal essence” and sweetened with a sugar blend that includes heather honey and a touch of glycerin. All else is a secret!

If you’re familiar with Drambuie at all, it’s most likely because of the Rusty Nail. This two-ingredient cocktail combines Scotch whiskey and Drambuie. It’s purported to have been created in the 1960s by bartenders at the 21 Club, the same New York bar where the Benedictine and Brandy was invented in the 1930s – see Bottle #17 for more on that! The drink was a big hit with the Rat Pack, fueling its popularity though the 60s and 70s.

That’s the era of the full-size vintage bottle I have. Specifically, it’s almost certainly from 1977 to 1979, based on its tax strip combined with the fact that the volume is listed as 23/32nds of a quart, so it’s before the US went metric in 1980.

My tiny bottle is trickier to date. It looks a lot like its full-sized buddy, but much simpler. Which you could attribute to it being a tiny bottle, but I don’t think that’s it. I’ve found a lot of mini versions of this online that look like the big one, with a neck wrapper, and tons of flowery language about its history and roots in 1745.

Narrowing the date down further is hard. If you look closely at older bottles, you can see some differences from the 60s to the 90s, but you have to look really closely. My bottle has metric measures and ABV rather than proof, so it’s definitely after 1980. If I had to guess, I’d say 1990s. At the end of the 90s they radically changed the label to try to give it a more modern look, and I can see how this simpler label might have been a step along that path. The branding updates came fast and furious after that, and in their most recent revision they’ve gone back to something that’s more in keeping with their classic look, just modernized. I’m looking forward to trying a few different bottlings side-by-side!

 

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