The (Sometimes) Weird History Behind Three Whisky Cocktails

The (Sometimes) Weird History Behind Three Whisky Cocktails

Written by
April 29, 2018

Mastering famous whisky cocktails is an impressive feat, but do you know the history behind the concoction in your glass?

The story behind the drink is often steeped in drama, secret recipes and bars you could only enter using secret passwords. What better to regale your guests with than the story of the very cocktail you have made for them! No-one is more sophisticated and knowledgeable than you!

We teamed up with our mates at Chivas Regal – let’s face it, they know more about whisky history than most – to get all the details.

Whisky Sour

The Whisky Sour is such a beloved cocktail that it even has its own dedicated day in America. (August 25, if you’re interested.) It’s hard to know exactly when the Whisky Sour first soured (?) its way into existence, but it was definitely around by the 1860s.

Some researchers reckon that the cocktail was invented in the Chilean town of Iquique in 1872, when an English sailor named Elliot Stubb decided to abandon ship and open a bar. Upon experimenting with local ingredients (like lemon liquors), one day he decided to add a little whisky (and a lot of sugar) to his cocktail and dubbed it the ‘Whisky Sour’. Others claim a bartender named Jerry Thomas invented the concoction by including a version in his seminal 1862 cocktail book, ‘The Bartender’s Guide’.

But wait, there’s also a third origin story! In the 1700s, the British Navy was prone to adding lime or lemon juice to rations of rum, gin or whisky to preserve the juice (or more likely, to water down the liquor) which was used to stave off scurvy. So the ‘sour’ of the Whisky Sour could have been accidentally born on a ship of scurvy-ridden sailors. It's more fun if you imagine they were pirates.

Rob Roy

The weirdest thing about the invention of the Rob Roy was that it wasn’t the first drink of its name – confusing, huh?

In 1873, the New York Sun newspaper published an article about “American Fancy Drinks” that included the Rob Roy… but it wasn’t the Rob Roy as we know it today. This drink, which was attributed to a bartender in New York, contained American whiskey, brandy or gin, with sugar bitters and almond syrup. However, the famous Rob Roy cocktail (no offence, previous cocktail) is basically a Manhattan with scotch instead of American whisky.

It’s a little murky from there, but what we know for sure is that by the 1890s it was being served at the swanky Waldorf Astoria in New York and was named after the 1894 Broadway show – you guessed it – Rob Roy, which told the story of Robert Roy MacGregor, the Scottish Robin Hood of the 18th Century. What was meant as a bit of a cocktail publicity stunt turned into a classic whisky mixer that is still enjoyed over a hundred years later.


The Manhattan is one of the few cocktails that is still made almost exactly like it was in its inception. The most likely story of the Manhattan’s invention takes us to New York (naturally) in the early 1880s. The cocktail was said to have been first mixed in the swanky Manhattan Club, which was well known for its extensive stocks of aged rye whisky in great cellars. Safe to say there were no sticky maraschino cherries in these Manhattans.

But the Manhattan actually has another origin story that is less likely, but a little more fun. There’s a popular legend that says that the Manhattan was first fixed at a party thrown by glamorous socialite Jennie Jerome in 1874. The party was to celebrate a similarly fancy reveller called Samuel J. Tilden, who had just been elected Governor of New York.

The problem with that story? Jennie Jerome couldn’t have thrown such a party because historical records show she was in England at that time. How do we know? Because she was ready to give birth to her son – Winston Churchill.

However you like your whisky (or however you choose to drink it), make sure you pick up a nice drop to celebrate this World Whisky Day – we’d recommend the delicious Chivas Regal 12YO Scotch Whisky.

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