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The Rusty Nail Cocktail Is a Forgotten Classic That Deserves the Spotlight

Rusty Nail / Photo by Tyler Zielinski

The Rusty Nail cocktail is a Scotch throwback to the post-Prohibition era of the 1930s. In nearly a century since its creation, the drink’s popularity has lurched from one of the world’s most in-demand drinks to mostly forgotten relic.

The origins of the Rusty Nail are said to date to the 1937 British Industries Fair in New York, where it was named the B.I.F, after the trade show. Its ingredients and proportions followed a standard formula used in cocktails at the time: spirit, sweetener (usually in the form of vermouth or liqueur), and a dash or two of bitters. Cocktail aficionados will note this template used in countless other classics from the Manhattan to the Sazerac.

The early Rusty Nail combination wasn’t initially popular, and various formulations of spirits, liqueurs and names were tried in the ensuing decades. By the 1960s, the now-standard combination of Scotch whisky and Drambuie, a blended Scotch-based liqueur, was solidified, gaining the blessing of Gina MacKinnon, then chairwoman of the Drambuie Liqueur Company. MacKinnon threw her support behind “Rusty Nail” as the drink’s official moniker. Some say the drink got its name from its pale-yellow color, while others dubiously claim early variations were stirred with an actual rusty nail.

(Worth noting, there are also unsubstantiated claims that the word “cocktail” comes from an early tradition of stirring multi-part drinks with a rooster’s tail feather, while the “screwdriver” is claimed to have been named after imbibers using the tool to mix their vodka and orange juice. So, take the “rusty nail” story with a grain of salt. Neolithic Ozieri civilizations were using spoons as far back as 3200 B.C.E., and we find it hard to believe everyone who invented a cocktail was somehow unable to find one.)