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How to perfect the Penicillin cocktail, according to an expert

A modern classic, this cocktail will help you feel better in more ways than one

Getty Images/iStockphoto Copyright: brent Hofacker

From Carthusian monks distilling herbal elixirs to frontier doctors employing whiskey as an anesthetic, alcohol has always had close ties to medicine. Modern invalids will still ask their bartender for a hot toddy when they’re feeling down, and plenty of people swear by the curative properties of their favorite cocktail. Even your cough syrup has a little hooch in it. But whether you’re after a remedy for what ails you or just a cure for the common cocktail, the Penicillin is good medicine. 

A modern classic, the Penicillin was invented by Australian bartender Sam Ross at Milk & Honey, the Lower East Side speakeasy that helped propel the cocktail revolution of the early aughts. Like all drinks that outlive the bars they were invented in, the Penicillin builds on a simple cocktail formula — the whiskey sour– with a couple of thoughtful tweaks that make it greater than the sum of its parts. The memorable name doesn’t hurt, either. 

Instead of American whiskey, Ross wanted to add a Scotch cocktail to the list, and he doubled down on the drink’s medicinal theme with a cold-curing combo of ginger, honey, and lemon. As a final touch, he floated a quarter-ounce of heavily peated Islay Scotch on top of the finished drink, ensuring every sip would begin with a warming, smoky aroma. 

Penicillin

By Sam Ross, Bartender at Milk & Honey

Ingredients: 

  • 2 oz. Blended Scotch
  • .75 oz. Honey-Ginger Syrup*
  • .75 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
  • .25 oz. Islay Single Malt Scotch

Method: 

  1. Combine blended Scotch, honey-ginger syrup, and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously
  2. Strain into a double old-fashioned glass over fresh ice 
  3. Float the Islay Scotch on the top of the drink by pouring over the back of a bar spoon

*For the honey-ginger syrup, combine 1 cup water with 1 cup honey and a 6-inch knob of ginger, peeled and diced. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Steep overnight, then strain out solids and store in a sealed container for up to one month. 

What you need to know

The magic of this drink is that it gets such bold ingredients to play nice with one another. Ginger and Islay Scotch would overpower a lesser cocktail, but their delicate balance here means that there’s no room for compromise. The spicy bite of fresh ginger can’t be faked, so do yourself a favor and take the time to make the real thing (it takes ten minutes, and you can drink your Scotch while you wait). And while the blended Scotch for the base might not play an essential role in the final product’s flavor, don’t skimp on the Single Malt. It’ll elevate your Penicillin from good to great, plus it’s one of the best whiskeys to have on hand in case of an emergency, medical or otherwise.

Ryan Polhemus
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Ryan Polhemus is a freelance drinker with a writing problem. He believes firmly in the power of short stories, long hikes…
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