Happy Hour History: The Rusty Nail

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The trajectory of a cocktail’s popularity is a fickle thing. It can be random, driven by the capricious whims of tastemakers and, occasionally, well-crafted marketing campaigns. The Rusty Nail is one of those cocktails that, despite its early popularity, has been all but forgotten. A staple of the ring-a-ding-ding 1970s, it’s the type of drink you now only encounter flipping through a dusty copy of the Old Mr. Boston Official Bartender Guide.

But you’ve probably never even had a Rusty Nail, have you? I hadn’t until very recently when the cocktail caught my eye during the premier of Better Call Saul. In the cold open, Saul Goodman makes himself a Rusty Nail before sitting down to watch a video of old TV commercials from his glory days as Albuquerque’s leading ethically-dubious lawyer.

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That scene says everything you need to know about the current cultural status of the Rusty Nail: a dated drink for sad sacks clinging to their former greatness. Like Saul, the Rusty Nail’s best days are behind it. But what really makes it so different from the Moscow Mule or the Negroni — both cocktails from bygone eras that have been enthusiastically rediscovered as of late? When is it going to be the Rusty Nail’s turn?

Composed of scotch and Drambuie, an often-overlooked scotch-based liqueur, the Rusty Nail is smoky and sweet — the ideal after-dinner sipper that packs a stealthy punch. While scotch may be intimidating for some, the honey and herbal notes from the Drambuie cut the bite while elevating the overall scotchiness of the drink. It’s a classic don’t-knock-it-’til-you’ve-tried-it cocktail. Seriously, it’s a real treat.

Tracing the history of the Rusty Nail, I found a cocktail with a serious identity crisis. An early version first appeared in England in 1937 under the name “BIF,” short for British Industries Fair. A drink made to mark the occasion of a trade show doesn’t scream “cool.” Let’s face it: drunken businessmen don’t make great spokespeople. Well, maybe these guys do.

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After about 20 years in limbo, the cocktail gained new currency in the 1960s, but its name varied depending on the locale. In New York, it was called a “Little Club No. 1,” after a swanky showbiz industry watering hole on East 55th Street. In the Midwest, they preferred the “Knucklehead,” don’t ya know? While across the Pacific in South Asia, American Air Force officers ordered a “Mig-21.”

The venerable “King Cocktail” Dave DeGroff, however, offers a different take positing that the Rusty Nail was a result of bartender experimentation at New York’s famous 21 Club. This is likely where the “D&S” (Drambuie and scotch) name originates since these were the same innovators who brought us the B&B (Bénédictine and cognac) cocktail.

All this nonsense was put to rest in 1967, when Drambuie chairwoman Gina MacKinnon declared that the popular cocktail should henceforth be called the Rusty Nail. Far be it from me to question the wisdom of my people (despite my very Italian surname, I’m a proud Scotsman on my mother’s side), but it’s a terrible name. It’s neither appealing nor clever, and arguably what has helped to sideline an otherwise delightful cocktail.

The Rusty Nail did up its hipness quota in the 1970s when it gained favor with Rat Pack. Unfortunately, that endorsement carries little weight today when people can’t even recognize Missy Elliot let alone Peter Lawford.

Rusty Nail Recipe
Ingredients
2 oz. scotch whiskey — a good blended scotch is fine to use here; I used Johnny Walker Black
1/2 oz. Drambuie
1 lemon twist

Directions: Combine both ingredients into an old fashioned glass with ice, and stir. Garnish with a lemon twist. The classic modern recipe calls for equal parts scotch and Drambuie, but I recommend the drier preperation. Like a martini, you can always dial it in so if you like it sweeter, add a bit more liqueur.

Enjoy while listening to this. Caveat audiens: Some of the banter between songs is a bit dated. By dated, I mean old white guys making jokes that are occasionally offensive. Please take the text as representative of a cultural moment, and not as an endorsement of such humor.

Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso.

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