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Happy Hour: Rusty Nail (By Paystyle; February 2010)


Many years ago, when I embarked on a journey to learn about the Rusty Nail, I went right to a few local dive bars. I believed the hype. Naturally, a Rusty Nail could only truly be enjoyed in an establishment with peeling paint and New Year’s Eve decorations circa 1987. So I hit Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village. Holland Bar near Port Authority. O’Connor’s in Park Slope. The Subway Inn next to Bloomingdale's and then a few more for good measure. One thing was consistent; my drink request was generally met with an arched eyebrow from the barkeeper followed by a wipe of dust off the Drambuie bottle. The scuttlebutt no one had ordered one in years.

The Rusty Nail is a quintessential “old man” drink and has an unforgiving moniker, which predicts a night ending in the proverbial gutter. The name alone is enough to send a shiver down your liver. Let’s take the image: A nail. Sharp. Metallic. And rusty! Not too appealing if you ask me. The Rusty Nail does not evoke the antebellum scenery of a Mint Julep. Nor does it enjoy the sophistication of the Martini. On the contrary, when we think of the Rusty Nail, we think of some hole in the wall bar in Hell’s Kitchen serving the flophouse pensioners. To make matters worse, there is little knowledge of the cocktail’s origins but it does appear on cocktail menus at such notable watering holes like the 21 Club in the late 1950s.

Scotch. Drambuie. Ice. An optional twist. That combination doesn’t sound like rotgut or bathtub gin! Sounds kind of elegant actually. Wait, what is Drambuie anyway?

According to the brand’s site, Drambuie means the “drink that satisfies” in Gaelic and has a long history dating back to the mid-18th century. It is a secret recipe attributed to highland patriot Bonnie Prince Charles Stewart from 1746. Prince Charles tried unsuccessfully to usurp English control over his homeland and sacrificed his secret recipe as payment during his exile to France. The liquor is a combination of blended Scotch and heather honey. It can be imbibed on the rocks or in mixed drinks. After reading up on the regal story of Drambuie, it’s hard to believe that the honored liquor has become associated with such a dive drink as the Rusty Nail.

When choosing the brand of Scotch to use in your Rusty Nail, the quality is important. Typically, the Rusty Nail is mixed using a blended scotch. In the past, I have been a fan of J&B (that’s Justerini & Brooks), Ballentine’s, and Famous Grouse as the base. So for my first Rusty Nail, I went with reliable old Famous Grouse. In my opinion, any of these blends can hold their own against Drambuie’s sweetness any day of the week but The Famous Grouse stands out. Famous Grouse is medium bodied with flavors of toffee and spice showing through. Grouse compliments the Drambuie by not being overwhelming.

For my second Rusty Nail, I chose the artisanal path and went with Bowmore single malt scotch on the lower end of the price scale called Legend. Founded in 1779, Bowmore Distilleries is the oldest producing house in Islay. The Bowmore Legend has no defined age, but is typically crafted from 8-year-old scotch. Some characteristics: it is 40 % alcohol by volume (80 proof), with tasting notes of lemon, peat, barley, and sweet honey. In addition, Legend retails for under $30 making it very attractive for cocktails and mixed drinks. In the Rusty Nail, Legend blends perfectly with Drambuie’s honey essence but retains the legendary Islay robust smoky flavor. This substitution of blended for single malt scotch is trans-formative, improving the original Rusty Nail formula thus making it is a pleasure to sip and savor on a crisp autumn night. One last thing, the original recipe is 1 ½ oz scotch and ½ oz or ¾ oz Drambuie, however, if you use an Islay single malt scotch, I recommend increasing the amount of Drambuie to balance out the flavor.


2 oz. Scotch (I recommend Bowmore Legend)
1 oz. of Drambuie
Twist of Lemon (Optional)

Tools: Jigger, bar spoon, Old Fashioned glass, and Swiss peeler

Method: Build in an Old Fashioned Glass. Add ingredients, a 2” square big ice cube, and stir. Serve garnish with a twist.

Insider’s Tip: Blended Scotch drinkers, you will love the Rusty Nail with a low cost single malt like Bowmore Legend. Try one next time you desire a scotch and soda or a Rob Roy on the rocks. It doesn't have to be in a dive bar. Indeed, let’s help the signature cocktail of the “the drink that satisfies” find its way out of the gutter and onto every cocktail bar’s menu.

*Photograph by Vanessa Bahmani

**Got a cocktail question? Reach Fredo on twitter @loungerati, email me at fredo(at)loungerati(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!

***Fredo Ceraso is the editor-at-large of the lounge lifestyle blog He is head cocktailian and a co-producer of The Salon parties. Fredo is a member of the USBG New York chapter and rolls drinks at many Lounge, Swing, Jazz Age, & Burlesque events in New York City.
Column: Happy Hour


  • I never thought negatively about the Rusty Nail. In fact it is one of the most serious sweet cocktails – better than a Godfather [Amaretto makes it “less serious”].

    I actually like the idea to make a smoky Rusty Nail with a Single Malt. For the moment I am offering in my bar a Speyside Rusty Nail with Monkey Shoulder [which is pretty much the opposite of smoky – but also very good].

    Only thing is the proportions. You mentioned that 1 1/2 ounces to 3/4 ounces is too less Drambuie but your recipe with 2 to 1 is exactly the same [with increased amount].
    I am more a fan of 4 parts spirit and 3 parts liqueur for these kind of cocktails. You’ll have enough sweetness – though the spirit still defines the drink.


    Dominik MJ • the opinionated alchemist on

  • Snaps to you! I’ve loved Rusty Nails in the fall for years and always get flak for it. I will join you call to gentrify the Rusty.

    Emily on

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