A pleasing mix of honey, ginger, lemon and—of course —Scotch, the smoky-sweet-spicy Penicillin has become one of the most iconic drinks of the mid-aughts cocktail renaissance.
The History of the Penicillin
The original drink was inspired in part by the Gold Rush, a whiskey sour variation that contains honey syrup. That drink was created by T.J. Siegal, at the time a bartender at Milk & Honey, circa 2000.
But according to Sam Ross, who created the Penicillin (as well as another Milk & Honey classic, the Paper Plane), a shipment of blended Scotch prompted him to switch up the drink, swapping out bourbon for blended Scotch. (He also combined the bar’s honey syrup and ginger into a single honey-ginger syrup; we’ve opted for a more home-friendly approach in our adaptation.)
The finishing touches: a float of smoky Islay Scotch and candied ginger as a garnish.
That’s right. Although this drink has broad appeal, it’s a home run for Scotch lovers. For those who don’t already have two Scotches, the Penicillin is a great reason to add these bottles to your home bar. Milder blended Scotch is the core of the drink, melding smoothly with the honey, lemon and ginger. Try one of the Compass Box bottlings, or a mellow classic like Johnnie Walker, Chivas or Dewar’s.
A mere quarter-ounce of peated Scotch adds the smoky accent: Laphroaig 10-year is the preferred pour here. At first sip, the smokiness pleasingly blasts your senses. Then, as you tip it back and it mixes with the blended base, a symphony of complexity emerges.
Why Is It Called a Penicillin?
The drink’s name references the groundbreaking antibiotic Penicillin. And indeed, the ingredients in a Penicillin cocktail have, over the centuries, been thought convey health benefits. For instance, ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans all used honey in the treatment of wounds and intestinal problems. For more than 5,000 years, Indian and Chinese cultures used ginger in tonics for a variety of ailments. Even modern studies suggest that consumption of lemons, which are rich in citric acid, vitamin C and polyphenols, has health benefits.
All that said, don’t expect that downing a few Penicillins will actually cure what ails you, at least medically speaking.
What Are Popular Penicillin Cocktail Variations?
This versatile drink is the foundation of many a drink riff. Some opt to switch out blended Scotch with another whiskey, such as bourbon, creating a kind of throwback to its Gold Rush predecessor. Meanwhile, others tinker with the smoky component, adding a measure of mezcal or other smoky spirits in place of Islay Scotch. Some have even tried throwing the entire drink in a smoker, just to see what happens.
A frozen version, called the Penichillin, pulled from a Slushie machine, was a favorite variation at now-closed Diamond Reef (a Brooklyn bar that was an offshoot of the Milk & Honey team); warm versions styled as a hot toddy have surfaced as well.
Meanwhile, some bartenders hone in on the honey-ginger flavors of the drink, playing with liqueurs or syrups that add similarly honeyed, spiced or herbaceous flavors (think: yellow Chartreuse, Strega, some lighter amaros) in an attempt to layer on more complex flavors, or top up the drink with ginger beer, lengthening the format.
Yet, no matter how the drink is tweaked, it’s important to keep the smoky element, preferably floated on top of the drink. Pro tip: Pour that peated Scotch slowly over the rounded bowl of a spoon. This disperses the liquid over a wider surface area, allowing it to float rather than sink under its own weight. That way, the whiff of smoke entices from the very first sip.
How to Make a Penicillin
Courtesy Sam Ross; created for Milk & Honey, NYC
In a cocktail shaker, muddle the ginger (or juice ¼ ounce of the root).
Add the next three ingredients and ice. Shake well.
Strain into a rocks glass over ice (preferably, a single large cube).
Slowly trickle in the smoky Scotch over the backside of a spoon held a few inches above the rim. This ensures the smoky whiskey stays atop the drink, creating what bartenders call a floater.
Garnish with a piece of candied ginger speared on a toothpick.
Last Updated: June 27, 2023