What Is Drambuie?

Posted on 18 May 2012 16:34

Drambuie is a Scottish liqueur. Developed in 1745, it is made with a fine aged Scottish malt whiskey to which a blend of heather honey and a secret collection of herbs and spices is added. The recipe is closely guarded to this day and, according to the company, only a few people actually know it.

A liqueur is a distilled alcoholic beverage to which sweeteners, spices, herbs, fruits, or roots have been added by redistillation, infusion, or maceration. They are sometimes called cordials. Whiskey liqueurs are a distinct category of liqueurs in their own right, but Drambuie, through taste, or good marketing, or both, is the king-pin of these.

The Story of Drambuie

The drink, as the story goes, was first commissioned by Scottish prince Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who later gave his secret recipe to Captain John Mackinnon, either because the family protected the prince, giving him refuge during his exile from power on the Isle of Sky (one stop he made, at least), or because the Captain provided loyal service during the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745 to 1746 and then helped the prince escape to France. Since then, the MacKinnon clan have made millions off the the drink and Drambuie is produced today by a company controlled by Captain John MacKinnon's descendants, who are now the largest liqueur producer of Britain. It is distributed in the United States by Bacardi USA, but still made by the company in Scotland. Although Drambuie became a registered trademark in 1893, it did not become commercially available until 1910.

bottle of drambuie, Scottish liqueur

Bottle of Drambuie

bottle of drambuie, Scottish liqueur

Bottle of Drambuie

Drambuie, about 80 proof (40% ABV), is the liqueur used in the well-known "dive bar" drink, the Rusty Nail, which is a mixture of regular whiskey and Drambuie, but that most likely developed during prohibition, when Drambuie was used to mix with the cheap raw prohibition spirits, which could be quite terrible and needed a bit of help to be drinkable. The liqueur is also used in countless recipes but it's chief use is as a cordial served at room temperature for sipping. Some, however, will find it too sweet for this purpose.

These days, as with many liqueurs, lots of people have it poured over ice. It is also good in coffee, with or without some fresh cream on top, and some people even enjoy it in hot tea. It is a good addition to almost any whiskey.

Rusty Nail cocktail

Rusty Nail 5

Rusty Nail cocktail

Rusty Nail 5

Drambuie Ingredients

We can only speculate as to what flavorings Drambuie contains, other than heather honey. A couple of things that have been suggested are anise, nutmeg, and saffron. The honey, spices and herbs are infused into aged Speyside and Highland malt whiskies, creating what the company calls an elixir.

Taste of Drambuie

Drambuie has a slightly smokey, very sweet, and herbal taste. Unlike many honeyed whiskeys, you will taste the honey in Drambuie, as well as the distinct note of spices and herbs. The consistency is slightly syrupy. Due to the sweetness, not man will want to drink it by itself, which is why it is usually used in mixed drinks, like the ones below.

Where Did the Name Come From?

The name Drambuie is usually said to be an Anglicization of the Gaelic words an dram buidheach which means "the drink that satisfies." Also, the words butdram buidhein means "golden drink" or more simply yellow drink in Gaelic, so the name could have come from this term as well. Since the former sounds more like a marketing invention, the latter seems more likely. Also see What is a dram?

The Rusty Nail Drink

Rusty Nails are usually made with Scotch whiskey, which is quite hot and biting so the Drambuie gentles it up somewhat. There is no agreed upon exact proportion of ingredients as different individuals prefer more or less Drambuie, to adjust the sweetness to their liking. Most bartenders, if they are good, should ask for the customer's preferences, i.e. sweet or dry. However, a good starting point is around 2 ounces of Scotch to 1 ounce of Drambuie and, if you are good at math, you'll see that is two parts Scotch to one part Drambuie. This can be served on the rocks or straight up. Sometimes a lemon twist is added, or a maraschino cherry in your less sophisticated establishments.

If serving on the rocks, fill an old-fashioned glass with ice to half-way and pour over the Scotch and then the Drambuie. Stir, but not too much.

According to A.J. Rathbun, author of Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz: A Cocktail Lover's Guide to Mixing Drinks, the Canadian version of the drink uses Rye whiskey instead of Scotch and is called a Donald Sutherland. Nice.3

This classic and simple drink owes a comparison to the Rob Roy which uses Scotch whiskey and vermouth (with some bitters). In fact, a Rob Roy with Drambuie added is called a Royal Rob Roy. And if you use regular Bourbon or whiskey instead of Scotch, you've got a Manhattan.

Keep in mind, though, that unlike Vermouth which averages about 17% ABV, Drambuie is just as potent as the Scotch it's poured into, so the Rusty Nail is to be treated with respect, if you are used to Rob Roys or Manhattans. However, in terms of taste, don't let the name Rusty Nail fool you. Although it sounds tough, a Rob Roy can actually have more bite, depending on how much Drambuie is used in the Rusty Nail.

There is a legend that the cocktail got it's name when four Scottish bartenders, dealing with some boorish American customers, stirred their drinks with a rusty nails. The Drambuie company likes the story of two brothers, Rusty and Dusty Nail, who, in 1799 had a difference of opinion on who invented the drink. They had a duel to settle their difference, and you can guess who won. More likely the name simply came from the drink's color.

Other Drambuie Cocktails

Royal Rob Roy

A "perfect" Rob Roy with Drambuie added. 1.5 ounces each Scotch and Drambuie, and 1/4 ounce each dry and sweet vermouth, are shaken with ice in a cocktail mixer and strained into a glass. Served with a maraschino cherry.

Bent Nail

The Bent Nail is a mix of Canadian whiskey, Drambuie, and Kirschwasser. It is also called a Mammamattawa. Usually, about 1.5 ounces of Canadian whiskey and 1/2 ounce of Drambuie is used, along with 1 tsp kirsch. These are combined with ice in a cocktail shaker, shaken, and strained into a glass, with or without more ice.


A Dundee is Bombay Sapphire Gin, Scotch Whiskey, Drambuie, and lemon juice. It uses 1.5 ounces gin and Drambuie to one ounce Scotch, and 1 tsp of lemon juice, all of which are shaken in a mixer and strained into a glass, with ice added. Cherry and lemon twist is the usual garnish.

Old Nick

An Old Nick is made with Canadian Club whiskey, Drambuie, orange juice, lemon juice, and orange bitters. 1.5 ounces Canadian Club, 1/2 ounce Drambuie, 1/2 ounces each, orange and lemon juice, and 3 dashes or orange bitters are combined in a shaker half-filled with ice. Served in on old-fashioned over ice with a lemon twist and maraschino cherry.

Whiskey Zipper

A Whiskey Zipper is a little Drambuie mixed with Canadian Club whiskey, maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice. 2 ounces of Canadian Club, 1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur, one tablespoon Drambuie, and one teaspoon lemon juice are mixed stirred with ice. Using Tullamore Dew makes it an Irish Whiskey Zipper.


Maker's Mark, Drambuie, Cutty Sark, lemon and orange juice. Shake with ice, one ounce of Maker's Mark, 1/2 ounce each of Drambuie and Cutty Sark, one ounce each of lemon and orange juice. Serve over ice.

Knuckle Buster

Drambuie, Cutty Sark, and Bacardi. 1.5 ounces Cutty Sark, 1/2 ounce Drambuie and 1 teaspoon Barcardi 151 rum served over ice.

Loch Lomond

A version of this drink is made with Scotch, bitters, and sugar. The Drambuie version uses vermouth. Shake with ice, one ounce Scotch whiskey, one once Drambuie, 1/2 ounce dry vermouth. Strain into a martini or cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.

1. Smith, Gavin D. A-Z of Whisky. Glasgow [Scotland: Angels' Share, 2009.
2. Buchanan, Josephine. Scotland. Singapore: APA Publications, 2005.77.
3. Rathbun, A. J. Ginger Bliss and the Violet Fizz: A Cocktail Lover's Guide to Mixing Drinks Using New and Classic Liqueurs. Boston, MA: Harvard Common, 2011. 278.
4. MacLean, Charles. Whiskey. New York, NY: DK, 2008.
5. "Drambuie." Drambuie. Web. 18 May 2012. <http://www.drambuie.com/>

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