A little while ago we talked about Sam Ross and the Paper Plane. Sam’s other famous creation is the Penicillin – another modern classic, even more so than the Paper Plane. It’s a creation that owes its existence to a very special bar and a very special – some might say eccentric, but not I – young gentleman, who sadly is no longer with us. A key player, perhaps the key player in this glorious cocktail renaissance was Sasha Petraske and his New York speakeasy Milk and Honey. M&H (as the cocktail cognoscenti call it) was never a mass market breakthrough – it was never meant to be – but it kick-started the idea the cocktail world should look to the past for inspiration and that craftsmanship was the way forward – and not the ludicrous circus juggling act that the Dark Ages of the cocktail had become. Sam Ross worked there and came up with this drink, a riff on an existing M&H favourite The Gold Rush, itself a Whisky Sour variation. One of Petraske’s genius moves was using honey syrup in place of sugar syrup and it truly is a revelation. The Penicillin uses this and a ginger syrup. Let’s learn how to make both of those before we proceed.
Take 3 parts liquid honey of reasonable quality and add 1 part boiled water (while still very hot). Put in a sterilised bottle and shake well for 20-30 seconds. Store in the fridge. It will keep for weeks but it’s so easy to make I make a small batch (200-250ml) every couple of weeks. Some Tiki drinks (mostly Navy Grog variations) call for a honey mix which is made 1:1 with water. You can use this rich honey syrup instead but use just a little over half the amount.
Take a couple of thumb sized sticks of fresh ginger. Cut it into slices (don’t even bother peeling it). Mash it up in a mortar and pestle or food processor. Put the remains in 200ml of freshly made, and still hot, 1.5:1 syrup (150ml of sugar to 100ml of boiled water) and leave it there for a couple of hours, stirring now and then. Sieve it and put in a sterilised bottle. [Note: I’ve changed this recipe from an earlier version to make it more accessible.]
The clever mind trick of the Penicillin is that the drinker gets a big whiff of powerful, oily, smoky malt from the float. Then they take a sip, but aha! they’re drinking from the much milder concoction beneath. The expectation of harshness followed be the reward of fragrant sweetness really is something special. And at the end, if you remembered not to stir, you get your smoky kick after all. And then you get to eat the spicy/sweet candied ginger. It’s just genius from start to finish.
2oz / 60ml light blended Scotch. eg. Johnnie Walker Red Label or similar.
0.75oz / 22.5ml fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons each of your honey and ginger syrups or to look at it another way 0.75oz / 22.5ml in total of honey and ginger syrup.
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled DOF glass containing a big lump of ice.
float a heaped teaspoon of smoky Islay malt whiskey on top.
Serve with a straw just taller than the glass (see picture) so that the drinkers nose gets up close to the smoky whisky layer. Trim some straws for length if necessary.
Garnish with a piece of candied ginger (optional).
Toast Sasha Petraske, saviour of the classic cocktail.
I have an optional extra “trick” I use to good effect in The Penicillin that you can copy if you have a Libbey Hobstar glass (or dimensionally identical substitute) and a Tovolo ice sphere mould (ditto). Put the ice ball in the glass and strain the drink over it in front of your guest. It takes the cold booze a little time to work its way under the snugly fitting ice ball then suddenly the ice ball will pop up through the liquid. Tip the Islay malt onto the apex of the sphere whence it will float itself nice and evenly over the surface. Add the straws and serve. Doesn’t sound like much but people seem to find it curiously impressive.