Although the origins of the Rob Roy are ambiguous, the drink’s simplicity and drinkability have kept it a bar staple for over one hundred years. It’s an excellent gateway into Scotch, which can be polarizing even amongst whiskey lovers. Straight Scotch, after all, can register as too peaty to drinkers unaccustomed to its smoky flavor, but the Roy Roy—which combines Scotch with sweet vermouth and bitters—is balanced and approachable.
Here’s everything you need to know about this cocktail, from its classic preparation to innovative variations made with high-end ingredients. Also on tap: The drink’s murky origin story and how to pair it with food.
What Is a Rob Roy Cocktail?
This simple, three-ingredient drink is essentially a Manhattan that swaps in smoky Scotch for rye whiskey. Sweet vermouth and bitters round out the drink. While it’s a relatively straightforward recipe, successful versions are balanced and made with quality ingredients. “The trick is finding which combination of these three components works best together,” says Adam Montgomerie, bar manager at Hawksmoor NYC.
Bar professionals make versions with a wide range of whiskeys. Montgomerie has used spirits ranging from a light blended whiskey to rich, sherried single malts. “I really like Dewar’s 12-Year-Old, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Angostura bitters,” he says, although he uses Clynelish 14-Year when he wants to add a bit of panache.
Rory Glasgow, the national ambassador for the GlenDronach Distillery in the United States and Canada, believes in going the single-malt route—arguably a sin for those single-malt enthusiasts who prefer to drink it neat. Glasgow, however, reasons that the Rob Roy does the spirit a service by not masking or overpowering the Scotch’s flavor.
These days, Glasgow’s go-to is a 12-year-old Scotch made by GlenDronach aged exclusively in Sherry casks. When combined with the herbaceous, sweet-spiciness of the vermouth and a dash of bitters, the trifecta of flavors aligns to create a delightful experience.
Where Did the Rob Roy Come From?
“The history of the Rob Roy, as with a lot of older classic cocktails, is a little sketchy,” says Montgomerie.
A common story is that the drink originated at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel—now the site of the Empire State Building—in 1894, when the menu showcased a Rob Roy for $.55. Another story, however, claims that a New York bartender dictated a concoction similar to the Rob Roy to The New York Sun in 1873. Some references go back even further, including early renditions of a simple Manhattan that highlighted Scotch instead of American whiskey. For instance, “Some older cocktail books contain a reference for a Rob Roy, but these weren’t what we know of as the drink today,” adds Montgomerie. made by swapping whiskies—Scotch instead of American.
Whatever the origin, it is widely known that the cocktail got its name from a popular play that debuted in New York in 1894. “The drink is named for the Rob Roy operetta, which was all about the Scottish folk hero, Rob Roy,” says Montgomerie.
How to Pair the Rob Roy With Food
The Rob Roy lends itself nicely to all kinds of dishes, from savory entrees to desserts. Montgomerie finds that the cocktail pairs well with red meats, especially those cooked over charcoal. Glasgow, meanwhile, is also fan of pairing it with sweet-but-not-too-sweet fare, like a quality piece of dark chocolate or something else with a hint of sugar.
Easy Riffs on the Rob Roy Cocktail
One can, of course, play with the brands chosen for the cocktail’s key ingredients—say, going for a peatier Scotch, a more herbaceous style of sweet vermouth or a different type of bitters than the standard Angostura. Many bartenders also seek out additional ingredients when creating riffs on the Rob Roy.
The Bobby Burns, for example, incorporates the herbal liqueur Benedictine, which delivers notes of flowers, berries, herbs, roots and spices.
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Montgomerie, meanwhile, has toyed with multiple versions of the Rob Roy. One, dubbed the Upside Down, combines a blend of Johnnie Walker Black Label and Clynelish 14-Year Scotch. At Hawksmoor NYC, he’s also created a drink that swaps vermouth for Madeira and added pineapple and cacao liqueurs. “This proved to be a very popular after-dinner sipper that played on the rich, tropical notes of the whiskeys,” he says.
How to Make a Rob Roy Cocktail
Recipe by Adam Montgomerie
- 1 1/4 ounces Johnnie Walker Black Label
- 3/4 ounce Clynelish 14 Year Single Malt
- 1 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1 dash Saline Solution*
Add all ingredients to a mixing glass, stir until properly chilled and diluted, strain into a Nick & Nora glass from the freezer, and garnish with a coin of lemon peel.
*For the saline solution
Dissolve 10 grams of kosher salt into 100 millileters of water. Store in the fridge for up to one week.
Published: September 4, 2023