A Dram for What Ails Ya

PenicillinAs a “practical guide to home bartending” this discussion will choose certain directions.  For example, I tend to focus on ingredients rather than drinks themselves.  I do this because I believe versatility is a core aspect of practicality. But rules were meant to be broken…

My grandmother passed away when I was 20 years old.  Her husband had passed the year before, and I spent her last few months living with her in the house they bought in 1940 and helping out domestically between work and school.

During this time, I found in the kitchen a hand-written recipe card titled “Cough Syrup”.  Scribbled on the card were three ingredients: “2 T whiskey, 1 tsp honey, 1 tsp lemon juice”.  And the instructions, “mix and drink”. This was remarkable since my grandparents were teetotalers. I wish I had kept that card.

Grandma never made me that medicine, but I remembered the card nostalgically when I had a good Penicillin (no, not penicillin) years later.


2 oz blended scotch
1/2 oz Islay scotch
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz honey syrup (see below)
2 fresh ginger slices

Shake well and strain over 1 big clear ice cube in a small old fashioned glass.  Garnish with candied ginger (like we did for the Stocking Stuffer)

I had seen Penicillin recipes and even had a poor one at an over-rated and over-priced bar on a business trip.  But I have to admit it wasn’t until I had the one at Fox Liquor Bar that I realized the full potential of this drink.  The folks at Comfort in Richmond, VA took it to the next level and I was hooked.

The great thing about Penicillin is that it is an accessible sweet/sour drink (e.g. sidecar, whiskey sour, margarita) but with enough depth and smoke for more experienced palates too.  A good Penicillin relies on the balance of honey, ginger, and lemon with the smoke and peat of a good scotch whiskey.  So like all good sweet/sour drinks it requires fresh ingredients and precise mixing.

We’ve covered lemon juice and candied ginger, and the fresh ginger root is easily obtainable at any supermarket.  Simply slice off a couple of pieces with a knife or peeler.  These will muddle with the other ingredients in the shaker. Other recipes call for ginger syrup, and that certainly works. But I really enjoy the way spicy fresh ginger mixes with the smoke and peat of the Islay whisky

The honey syrup is also embarrassingly easy to make, keeps for a good while, and can be used for other drinks or general experimentation.  For instance, there’s the Maple Leaf which is hot-day refreshing in a Canadian kind of way.  And you can change up your Old Fashioned or Gimlet if you’re feeling frisky.

Honey Syrup

4 oz hot water
4 oz honey

Heat water in tea kettle. Pour equal amounts hot water and honey into squeeze bottle. Shake to mix.

Set aside and  use when needed.  Keeps 1-3 weeks.

A note on Islay scotches.  I use Laphroaig because it is my favorite scotch and I have it on-hand anyway.  But any of the 8 Islay whiskys would be fine here.  What you’re looking for is an added punch of smoke and peat that Islay is famous for.  A Penicillin without this addition (say with 2.5 oz of blended whisky) is good, but not quite the same.

And as far as blended scotch goes, I’m not too picky for this application.  At various times, I have Johnny Walker Red, Famous Grouse, or Dewar’s in the home bar.  Usually someone has gifted a bottle or brought it to a gathering, and all of these make equally good penicillin.  I’d shy away from store-brand or bottom-shelf whiskys for this — frankly I haven’t spent time trying to find good ones.

A couple of additional potential modifications to this base recipe:

  • If you like your drinks less tart (or the lemon you squeezed is less ripe), cut the lemon juice back to 1/2 oz.
  • If you like less smoke/peat, cut the Islay scotch to 1/4 oz and add another 1/4 oz of blended whisky
  • If you really like the spicy ginger flavor and want more of it, muddle the ginger in the shaker prior to mixing the drink.

We’ll revisit scotch whisky in more detail later. If you want a primer in the meantime, the Wikipedia article is a good tutorial.


About Paul

Having been passionate about cocktail craft for many years, I've recently been coerced into sharing my insights and experiences. This blog is my first attempt at that goal.
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