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How to Upgrade a Rusty Nail, the Classic Scotch Cocktail Your Dad Loved in the ’70s

Our resident bartender makes a version your parents probably haven't tried though.

rusty nail cocktail being poured into whiskey glass with ice and garnished with lemon peel Adam Jaime/Unsplash

The Rusty Nail is, in a word, dated.

Even if you’ve never had the drink, you probably already know this. It’s the liquid equivalent of roller disco, something that, if there were a benevolent dictator, they would’ve ended it by fiat in 1979. If it’s at home anywhere, it’s in a wood-paneled den, resting on a copy of Playboy magazine beside a cigarette and a pet rock. The Rusty Nail is one of the easiest drinks of all time to make (literally just scotch and Drambuie) but no one drinks them anymore, for much the same reason that you don’t see mustard-yellow shag carpet anymore—while it would be excessive to call it a crime against humanity, we, as a civilization, have moved on to better things. 

And yet, there’s something about the Rusty Nail we just can’t quit. Maybe it’s the name—to me it sounds like some creatively defined sex act, but there’s obviously something to it considering that there are currently more than 20 different American bars and restaurants called the Rusty Nail (extra points to Wichita, KS, where the bar serves a “Tetanus Shot” and their kids’ menu is titled “Little Nailers”). But more than that, there’s the cocktail’s potential. Yes, the Rusty Nail as it is normally conceived—scotch and Drambuie, either 2:1 or even equal parts (God forbid), served on ice without garnish or bitters—is two-dimensional and oversweet. But there’s a great drink in there and it’s not even hard to see. It’s an Old Fashioned! Reduce the sweetness and add bitters and it’s just as good as anything. It’s like if you met someone who had never heard of pizza but was always baking flatbreads topped with ketchup and melted cheddar cheese. It’s like, “My guy! You almost have it!”

The Rusty Nail—or the combination of those two ingredients, anyway—was invented in some form as early as the 30s, but you see it embraced by the Drambuie company in the 1960s and really take off over the next decade. Drambuie is a scotch-based liqueur, sweetened with honey and flavored with “a blend” of herbs and spices, but most notably anise, orange and vanilla, bottled at 40 percent alcohol. It’s pretty good all told and more versatile than it seems, but as far as classic cocktails go, it’s a one-hit wonder. The Rusty Nail is the sole reason Drambuie has taken residency in bars across the world.

You don’t see Rusty Nails around much, because not many bartenders have taken the time to rescue the cocktail from itself, not when there’s always new sous-vide infusions and stylish amari to dazzle us. Which is all fair enough I suppose but take a moment to polish up the Rusty Nail, and you’ll find it a perfectly wonderful drink, strong and spiced, with a warm honey sweetness and the inimitable backbone of a good scotch whisky. It’s the kind of thing that’s perfect for the darkness of December and reminds you that deliciousness never truly goes out of style. The fact that it’s the color of nicotine-stained linoleum is immaterial. And besides—if jumpsuits and bell bottoms can come back, so can this.

Rusty Nail

Add ingredients to a rocks glass with a large piece of ice and stir for 10 to 12 seconds. Garnish with a lemon peel.




Scotch: Across all our tests, most bottles worked great. The only style that doesn’t work are heavily sherry wood-aged or port wood-aged scotches, which are beautiful to sip but they bring a sweet richness that the Rusty Nail already has too much of. Aside from that, grab your favorite inexpensive scotch and go for it.

If you like smoky scotch, this is a perfect time to use it—I thought the Islay monsters were too much, but something a touch more subtle like Talisker, Caol Ila or Johnnie Walker Black were perfect. You could also do 1.5 oz. of a mild blend like Compass Box Artists Blend and 0.5 oz. of a big smoke bomb like Laphoirg, Ardbeg or Lagavulin.

Drambuie: From the isle of Skye (like Talisker scotch itself), Drambuie is, as mentioned, a honeyed and spiced scotch-based liqueur bottled at 80 proof. To make a proper Rusty Nail, you must use Drambuie. That said (and I’m sure much to the annoyance of the Drambuie company) I’ll just point out that if you don’t have Drambuie but have another 80-proof honeyed and spiced liqueur—Bénédictine, say—you’d still be able to make yourself a fine drink according to the specifications above.

Orange Bitters: This cocktail needs bitters for depth and complexity. Angostura is good but not, I don’t believe better, as the heavy spices clashing a bit with the Drambuie. For me, a couple dashes of Orange Bitters saves the day.

Annoyingly, there still isn’t any one brand of orange bitters that has risen to the top of the quality pile. The most readily available are Fee’s and Regans, which are fine enough, but are widely perceived to be each lacking in their own way. For this drink, given an internet of options, I’d go with the floral and lovely Bitter Queens.

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