I’ve always had trouble with Scotch whisky when it comes to making cocktails. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this—the long history of cocktailing has only managed to come up with a handful of Scotch-based cocktails that have any semblance of balance and finesse.

Part of the problem, in my estimation, is that malted barley makes a base spirit that is challenging in itself—a flavor that doesn’t show up in very many of our everyday foods.

The other thing that makes Scotch a difficult ingredient is the aggressive flavor of the peat that is typically used to fuel the barley drying kiln. It is a big, overbearing flavor, and presents real challenges to anyone trying to make balanced, accessible cocktails.

I have nothing against Scotch—a nice pour of quality Scotch, all by itself, is a fine way to end an evening—but I had pretty much given up on Scotch-based cocktail formulas, especially the “old school” stylings included in the classic bar manuals that I normally draw from.

Then my bride gave me a copy of Brad Parsons’s 2016 Amaro:  the Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, which introduced me to a whole new avenue of exploration.

It turns out that amari—those big, bittersweet Italian aperitif and digestif liqueurs—often seem to match perfectly with the barley and smoke of Scotch whiskies. The pairing isn’t a panacea, and doesn’t work for all amari, nor for all Scotches, but the combination provides true opportunities for successful new flavor combinations.

One of my favorite examples is a riff on the Old-Fashioned that Parsons attributes to Bangkok bartender Liam Baer, the Choke and Smoke Cocktail.

The Choke and Smoke Cocktail, photo © 2017 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
Liam Baer’s Choke and Smoke Cocktail
Choke and Smoke Cocktail
Liam Baer

  • 1½ oz (45 ml) Talisker 10-year Scotch whisky
  • 1½ oz (45 ml) Cynar
  • 1 bar spoon brown sugar cordial (1 bar spoon Demerara syrup plus 1 bar spoon Demerara rum)
  • pinch of kosher salt (3 drops of 1:4 salt solution)
  • 3 orange zests
  • 1 orange zest for garnish

Stir all ingredients with ice until well chilled; strain into a double old-fashioned glass over a large piece of ice. Express and garnish with orange zest.

Brown Sugar Cordial

  • 2 C (475 ml) Demerara sugar
  • 1 C (240 ml) water
  • 2 oz (60 ml) demerara rum

Heat and stir the sugar and water until mixed. Allow to cool, then add rum.

The Talisker is a curious Scotch whiskey, long on smoke, but without the pronounced peatiness that often accompanies that smokiness. It also has some salty, slightly orange fruit notes, and a very pleasant spiciness.

Cynar has become something of a bartender’s darling in the last few years. It is, as Parsons notes, a very “cocktail-friendly amaro.” It famously contains artichoke, and has a vegetal, earthy body and a sweet, caramel note on the finish, and makes a perfect foil and counterbalance for the dry, spicy smokiness of the Talisker.

Cynar label (detail), photo © 2017 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.The Cynar offers a bit of sweetness, but is in the drink mainly to balance the Scotch and to provide the bitters aspect of the classic Old-Fashioned structure. Baer’s original calls for a house-made brown sugar cordial to provide the rest of the sweetening, but a simple syrup or, preferably, a Demerara syrup will do just fine, along with a bar spoon of Demerara rum. (The rum is a bit of a flourish; I’ve made the Choke and Smoke with and without the rum addition, and have yet to identify the difference.)

Baer explains the salt this way: “I wanted to highlight the often undetected vegetal notes in Cynar, so I added a little bit of saline to really make the artichoke shine.”

I’ve long been fascinated by amari, and combining them with Scotch was a real eye-opener. I won’t go so far as to say that amari combinations could open up some “golden age” of Scotch-based cocktails, but can promise you that, based on the success of the Choke and Smoke, I’ll be mixing and matching Scotches and amari, looking for promising combinations, for a long time to come.

One more thing: the Choke and Smoke is a riff on another Scotch and amaro cocktail, Mark Allen’s Smoking Gun, which is similar in structure, but calls for the even more aggressive Fernet Branca instead of the Cynar, and amps up the peat with Laphroaig Scotch instead of the Talisker. It’s an acquired taste, but if you enjoy the Choke and Smoke, then the Smoking Gun might be your next step in Scotch and amaro land.