Spirits & Liqueurs Other Whiskey

Does the Whisky Mac Cocktail Deserve a Comeback?

Image: Tim Nusog

For a group of weary travelers bar-crawling their way through Glasgow after a week of distillery visits, a drink known as the Whisky Mac has taken on mythical status. Why? Because after murmurs of the drink began percolating between the travelers, they were spurred into action to try it for themselves. Yet the first several bars proved incapable of serving one up, missing its key ingredient, Stone’s Original Green Ginger Wine.

Stone’s is a fortified wine, described on the bottle as a “ginger-flavored currant wine” with a 13.5 percent ABV. And the old timer’s whisky drink—apparently shorthand for the Whisky Macdonald, so named for a Colonel Hector MacDonald who first crafted the drink while serving during the British Raj in India— is a simple combination of blended scotch and Stone’s, in a 3:2 or 1:1 ratio over ice.

After finally visiting a place that had the stuff on hand, the Whisky Mac proved to be underwhelming—serviceable in a pinch at home, sure, but falling short of something you’d want to order at a bar. But does the cocktail deserve a comeback? Can it be revived? A little on the bar experimentation quickly livened up the drink. A healthy dosage of Angostura bitters turned the beverage into a more proper cocktail, while the thought of a citrus peel garnish was unanimously viewed as a welcome addition.

Those quick tweaks showed that the Whisky Mac had potential, that there was something to the drink after all, if only it could be modernized with today’s mixology standards. To take the drink to the next level, my quest brought me to one of Washington, D.C.’s most creative bartenders, Adam Bernbach, the bar director for 2 Birds 1 Stone, as well as a group of restaurants—doi moi, Estadio and Proof.

2 Birds 1 Stone.

First, it was time to test the staple itself, Stone’s. “It’s been around obviously, but you don’t see it,” says Bernbach. “But it’s actually not that bad.” Ginger and spice lead on the nose, with a grapey and vermouth-like taste, as the ginger moves into the background.

Bernbach is used to working with fresh ginger, as he makes his own popular ginger beer at 2 Birds. Because of that, though, he has avoided using other ingredients with ginger flavors. “I’ve shied away from using ginger in other things,” he says. As for the Stone’s, he wanted to kick it up. “I love ginger, and I think this has a good amount of ginger,” he says. “But I want to make this into a bigger drink. What if we blend in some pepper, fresh ginger and cinnamon in there?”

Whisky Mac. Tim Nusog

The creative juices flowing, Bernbach disappeared into the back room, and soon the whirring and buzzing of a blender filled the air. He returned with a new concoction, having blended in fresh ginger and white pepper into the Stone’s, ditching his original idea to use cinnamon as well. “Cinnamon mimics sugar in way or at least sweetness,” he says. Meanwhile, his choice of the white pepper goes back to a flavor pairing he has used elsewhere before. “White pepper goes really, really with ginger, and it’s also really good with lemon,” he says.

The Stone’s had been amplified, with a far more vibrant, fresh, bold profile. Now it was time to construct a cocktail around it. Bernbach opted to deploy The Famous Grouse Smoky Black, a peated scotch blend, to match the heat from the fresh ginger and white pepper. “I needed to add something bigger,” he says, in order to align all of those flavors together.

Whisky Contardo. Tim Nusog

The drink wasn’t finished yet, though, with Yellow Chartreuse and orange bitters creating further layers for a more complete and well-rounded drink. An expressed lemon peel livened and brightened things up, and voila, the Whisky Mac had been reborn. The bitters and the citrus got in there just as they did in that original simple experiment, but elsewhere bolder flavors and fresh ingredients were incorporated to turn the drink into something viable for a craft cocktail bar.

This new drink needed a new name. So Bernbach polled 2 Birds regular and friend Eamonn Fetherston on a middle name, or a nickname, and the Whisky Contardo was officially born—after Fetherston taste-tested the new drink and gave his own approval, of course.

With a little bit of care and thought, any old-school old timer’s drink can be reimagined and turned into something worthy of our more particular modern cocktailing palates. The Whisky Contardo née Mac is just one example of how a good bartender with good ingredients can get the job done.