Before being made editor of Whisky Magazine, I worked on a gin-focused publication for our parent company. One of the things I learnt about through this role that particularly caught my attention was Old Tom gin. As a gin drinker, I was aware of the style and the supposed origins of its name – in 18th-century London, where back-street gin shops denoted by signs shaped like black cats would dispense a tot of gin for a coin placed in the feline’s mouth.
For those unfamiliar, this historical gin style (likely named for an English distiller called Thomas Chamberlain, not a tom cat) was traditionally sweetened; this began as a technique to mask undesirable qualities in poorly made spirits, but was later adopted as a deliberate stylistic feature. Also, as it pre-dated the use of continuous column still distillation, original iterations used pot-distilled spirit with heavier botanical character.
The sweeter, more pronounced profile of Old Tom compared with London dry gin made it a favourite with bartenders during the original ‘cocktail age’ of the late 19th century. Classic cocktails such as the Martinez (a mid-point between the Manhattan and Martini), Ampersand (made with sweet vermouth and Cognac), Tuxedo (made with dry vermouth or sherry), and Tom Collins (with soda, sugar syrup, and lemon juice) all originally used Old Tom gin as their base. Many modern recipes recommend the same, spurred on by a recent explosion in the production of Old Tom gins in England and beyond.
Like Old Tom gin, rye whisky is a historical style that was born of necessity as much as invention, as farmers from Michigan to Finland used distilling as a way to preserve their rye crops. Its pronounced aroma and flavour, vastly different to whiskies with barley- or corn-led mash bills, and its proliferation in North America in the 19th century led it to become a poster child for the cocktail movement. The Manhattan (and its cousin the Brooklyn), Sazerac, and Vieux Carre have rye whisky at their heart, while many modern iterations of the Boulevardier and Whiskey Sour sub the traditional bourbon for rye.
Also similarly to Old Tom gin, rye whisky suffered badly in the industry’s downturn in the latter half of the 20th century. However, rising interest in both craft spirits and cocktails in the past two decades has prompted something of a rye revival. More distilleries across North America and Europe are taking a punt on this grain, notoriously tricky to distil with, and capitalising on a greater willingness among whisky drinkers to explore different grains. Simultaneously, bartenders are giving it a more prominent showing on their shelves and cocktail menus.
The point about rye whisky that I want to emphasise here is its key role in mixology: an aspect of spirits consumption which some whisky drinkers still seem to overlook, ignore, or even frown on. Of course, and quite rightly, the goal of whisky distillers is to produce a spirit that can be enjoyed all by itself, but if you turn away from whisky’s potential in mixed drinks, you’re shutting off a huge avenue of flavour exploration. And rye whisky’s position as a cornerstone of global cocktail culture shows how integral this practice is to the spirit. A good bartender can take a measure of whisky and use myriad tools at their disposal to eke out different nuances, uncovering a side to the spirit that you may never have noticed or fully appreciated while sipping neat.
Major whisky producers are showing due respect for this connection. In 2022, Diageo’s World Class Bartender of the Year competition asked entrants to champion the company’s whisky portfolio in their submissions. Nikka Perfect Serve challenges bartenders to create a unique whisky cocktail to a specific set of drinker requirements. William Grant & Sons has hosted cocktail competitions through both Glenfiddich and Monkey Shoulder, and other brands including Jack Daniel’s, Jameson, and WhistlePig have also held competitions for bartenders.
It is a globally acknowledged fact that whisky plays a key role in a mixologist’s repertoire. So, the next time you visit a whisky bar, don’t skip past the cocktail menu.