I started drinking single malt Scotch whisky fulltime in 2008, when Alistair thought an upgrade to the premium version was warranted; a far more fitting drink for a newly minted postgraduate than Johnnie Black on the rocks.
Alistair and I shared around a third of that bottle in our first sitting. From that night, whisky became a staple topic of conversation and frequent accompaniment in the pursuit of leisure. Taking on single malt fulltime meant a new level of commitment, a steep learning curve and an ignorant understanding spouse. It meant having less time to work on wine, but I managed to still put in the minimum required hours on beer. Whisky was really just distilled beer anyway, I figured. It’s sad, costly and makes everyone think I’m old, but I now have a shrine to single malt Scotch in the lounge to rival the top shelves of all but the most discerning establishments.
Over the next few years, in an effort to retain some thematic consistency, yet introduce more variety into my imbibition (that really is a word), I took to trying some whisky-based cocktails. After exhaustive, hands-on, international research, my clear favourite was, and remains, the Penicillin. This is because:
a) It is the best
b) It had better be the best, because mixing the highest forms of whisky with inferior liquids is generally considered by enthusiasts to be an offence worthy of castration by fire ant.
Invented by master mixologist Sam Ross, formerly of Melbourne and now wielding the ice pick in NYC, this drink is aptly named, particularly as Nobel Laureate Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin and its therapeutic benefits, was a Scot. Scroll down to the list of ingredients, and you’ll also notice this drink likely has similar antibacterial properties to its namesake. While maybe not quite deserving of a Nobel Prize for chemistry, at a minimum the combination of ginger, honey, lemon and whisky should earn Mr Ross automatic membership of Mensa.
There are a few places here in Melbourne that produce an excellent Penicillin, my favourite being Seamstress. However, shelling out $18 a glass (actually $19 now…) started to irritate the hip-pocket nerve, the result being that my most deserving guests can now enjoy this mixed masterpiece in the salubrious surrounds of my home.
For those not living in a fully operational cocktail bar as I do, the Penicillin takes a bit of preparation, but this can be done ahead of time and then set aside, in sufficient quantities to make as many individual drinks as you like.
First is the ice. It’s best to ensure minimal dilution by using a single large piece of ice, preferably rounded, in the glass. The spherical ice melts more slowly, reducing the rate of dilution; someone’s kindly put all the science (SCIENCE!) together in a neat little experiment too. If making spherical ice, you’ll need lots of practice, an ice pick, a steel mesh glove, Band-Aids, a tourniquet, and at least half a litre of your own blood, or blood type, set aside. Ice should be between a golf ball and tennis ball in size (yes, that’s a big range – if anyone can think of something else round that is halfway between a golf ball and tennis ball in size I will happily edit the copy). Or you could just buy some ice sphere moulds.
The other prep step is making the ginger and honey syrup. The syrup should comprise slightly diluted honey (3 parts honey, 1 part water) and fresh ginger juice (preferably cold pressed).
Down to the drink itself:
2oz blended scotch whisky
¾oz fresh lemon juice
oz honey/ginger syrup
2 tspns peaty Islay single malt Scotch
In a cocktail shaker, pour 2 ounces of a good quality blended whisky (I’m currently using Dalwhinnie 15, as I have a surplus), 3/4 of an ounce of fresh lemon juice and 3/4 of an ounce of the honey/ginger syrup. Play around with the honey/ginger and lemon juice ratios to your taste – I find that I prefer slightly more of the honey/ginger and slightly less lemon juice, but generally stay pretty close to the recipe. Add a half dozen cubes of ice to the shaker, shake for 10 seconds and then pour into a whisky tumbler containing your giant ball of ice. If you’ve carved your own sphere, be sure to rinse or wipe off any blood before putting the ice in the glass.
Next, add a collar of smoky Islay single malt scotch, around 2 teaspoons. At the moment I use either a Caol Ila 12 or Lagavulin 16 (maybe even the Lagavulin 12 or the Laphroaig Quarter Cask shown in the picture, if I have a particularly worthy visitor). Any Islay will generally do – while the peaty nose of whisky from this part of Scotland is not to everyone’s taste when taken neat, it’s vital to this drink (… and the peat! Ahh, the peat…). Pour the Islay over the surface of the drink so it floats on top. This gives an excellent smoky aroma that hits your nose as you raise the glass to your mouth. Garnish with a piece of crystallised or candied ginger, and maybe a slice of lemon peel.