A few years ago, Scotch whiskey company Laphroaig launched an unusual advertising campaign. At first glance, the ads were pretty standard, just everyday people sipping the whiskey and having their say. What made them unusual was that many of these opinions were, to put it mildly, mean.
“That first sip was like getting a hot shovel in the face,” said one man, much to the amusement of his family, “I didn’t like it at all.” Peat-smoked Scotch is notoriously aggressive and medicinal, and those opinions, Laphroaig reminded us, were 100% off the cuff. There are obviously compliments too, Laphriag lovers, so to speak, but among them were others who wrinkled their noses and noted flavors like “iodine” and “formaldehyde” and, “it’s like taking the bathroom door of a dive bar, lighting it on fire and dragging it through a field of wildflowers,” all of which underscores the fact that peat-smoked scotch is a weird, wild spirit, and not for everyone.
It is a starting point for the New York bartender Sam Ross. When it comes to famous cocktails, I challenge you to find a less appealing name than “Penicillin”, and yet, apart from perhaps the Gold Rush (from which this is derived) and the Paper plane (another Sam Ross drink), Penicillin is the most successful cocktail invented in the current millennium. It flew under the radar for a few years, deployed locally in New York as a “bartender’s choice” cocktail for connoisseurs, quietly gaining followers until it reached critical mass. It was not commissioned by James Bond or featured on Oprah; it spread across the world simply because everyone loved it. Today, you can walk into any cocktail bar in the world and order one with confidence, whether it’s in New York, New Orleans, Naples or Nassau. Penicillin, like the antibiotic that gave it its name, is everywhere.
To understand penicillin, let’s start with a gold rush (bourbon, lemon, and honey) like Ross did in 2005 when he was playing with it. He first replaced the bourbon with a soft blended scotch, which reduces the woody punch and its commensurate sweetness. Good, but a bit too sweet, he cut the honey in half and added it with a ginger syrup, making a hot sour whiskey with honey and spiced with ginger – the kind of thing your grandma might recommend for everything from indigestion to cholera. And finally, the real stroke of genius, he grabbed some peated scotch — the aforementioned smoky, medicinal, and polarizing flavor — and layered some on top, for aroma.
The reason it works so well — the reason Laphroig has been so successful with its bizarre advertising experiment — is that there’s something inherently appealing about big, aggressive flavors. People who like him tend to like him. If it’s not for everyone, great. As those ads illustrated, if you like it, you’re in the club. If you can’t stand it, too bad for you.
The special magic of penicillin is that it presents that flavor, but the de-fangs. Take a sip of something like pure Laphroig, and it’s an oily explosion of smoke and salt and flavors like, as one woman puts it, “an elastic bandage.” However, place just a hint of this flavor alongside something as strong as ginger and something soothing like honey, with a wide spine of sweet scotch and the burst of fresh lemon, and it becomes a caged tiger, still wild but made accessible to more or less everyone. It’s a way of flirting with disaster but staying safe, so you can say things like “it’s like liquefying an ashtray” or “it’s like being slapped with a smoked fish”, but be seriously, you know, in a good way.
- 2oz. Scottish mixed
- 0.75oz. Lemon juice
- 0.75oz. Ginger / Honey Syrup
- 0.25oz. Smoked Scotch
Add the blended scotch, lemon juice and ginger/honey syrup to a shaker with ice and shake for six to eight seconds. Strain over fresh ice in a highball glass, gently drizzle the smoky scotch over the top, and garnish with something aromatically neutral like ginger candy or nothing at all.
Notes on ingredients
Scottish mixed: Your options here are wide. “Blended” in this case means a Scotch that is a blend of malt whiskey (rich and full-bodied) and grain whiskey (light and sweet), designed to be smooth and approachable. The good news here is that blends are plentiful and often inexpensive – my favorite these days is Compass Box’s Great King Street: Artist’s Blend, but for penicillins the blended scotch is less important. Famous Grouse, Scottish Glory, Dewars, Chivas – they all work, as would a smooth 100% malt whiskey like Monkey Shoulder.
Smoked Scotch: Ross used the Compass Box Peat Monster in 2005, which still works great. Most of us use the Laphroaig 10 Year Old because it’s every inch the beast you want it to be, while being much cheaper. Traffic jams from Ardbeg, Bowmore, Lagavulin, Bruichladdich and others would also be interesting. It’s only a quarter ounce, so I try not to be too prescriptive on specific bottlings – just make sure it’s big and smoky.
Ginger/honey syrup: There are many ways to make ginger and honey syrup. Here are four, in the order I prefer them, which also happens to be from the hottest to the hottest.
If you have access to a good juicer, you can literally squeeze some ginger (it’s fibrous and the yield is horrible, but it tastes so good) and add 2 oz. ginger juice to 6 oz. honey, and stir to combine.
If you have a good blender, you can make 6 oz. honey, 2 oz. chopped ginger root and 2 oz. of hot water in a blender and blend on high power for 30 seconds, then strain out the fibrous solids.
Alternatively, on the stovetop, add to a small saucepan 6 oz. honey, 3 oz. water, and a finely chopped 3- to 4-oz. piece of ginger and simmer over low heat for five minutes, before cooling, straining out the solids and bottling.
If you don’t have any of these things, you can always make Simple Honey Syrup 6 oz. honey to 3 oz. hot water and stir to dissolve. Then for the cocktail, instead of the above recipe of 20g of ginger and honey syrup, make 15g. honey syrup and 0.5 oz. a ginger liqueur like Canton or King’s Ginger.
The only other thing I will say is that as the methods get a bit inaccurate, so does the sweetness quotient, so you may need to adjust the recipe for the final cocktail to make sure it’s balanced sweet/sour.
Variants: This idea of a sweet base spirit spiked with its dangerous cousin is fruitful and worthy of experimentation. Penicillin #2 is the same but with tequila as a base and a mezcal float. You can do it with vodka and pisco, gin and aquavit, anything light and intense. Ginger, honey and lemon go with just about anything.