A Case for the Blood and Sand Scotch Cocktail

A Case for the Blood and Sand Scotch Cocktail
Photo/Andrew McCaul

Weighty and warming, Scotch whisky is a winter staple. However, when the thermometer spikes, many eschew their Caledonian drams for lighter and (what is thought to be) more mixable fare. Perhaps because relatively few Scotch cocktails exist the spirit has gotten a bad rap for not playing well with others. But a seemingly unlikely concoction—the Blood and Sand—belies that notion with its friendly, complex and utterly refreshing charms.

At a glance, it seems ludicrous. Four distinct and not necessarily complementary flavors (Scotch whisky, red vermouth, cherry liqueur and orange juice) make up this bomber of a cocktail. It seems unworkable, but work it does. In fact in his book The Craft of the Cocktail, Dale Degroff credits it as the drink that convinced him never to judge a cocktail without first tasting it. Do it yourself. You'll be pleasantly surprised.

The drink's nomenclature is a bit unorthodox as well. Most cocktails treat the word "and" as an ampersand (&). The Blood and Sand spells it out, most probably because the drink is named after the Rudolph Valentino movie of 1922, which is also styled Blood and Sand, with the “and” spelled out. The connection between the two titles is evidently explained by color (red cherry and yellow-brown whisky) as it certainly does not describe the flavors. Nor was the drink invented in the desert. Maybe the term is meant to conjure up that element of danger that inevitably lurks in such a mix. Some also reference the name by making the drink with juice of a blood orange, but that type is not specified in recipes.

The first known mention of the drink comes in the original (1930) edition of The Savoy Cocktail Book, written by Harry Craddock, the one-time head barman of the American Bar at London's Savoy Hotel. Blood and Sand was a groundbreaker at a time when not many Scotch cocktails existed. It's not the first Scotch cocktail. Jerry Thomas's Blue Blazer came in the mid-19th century, but that was more about pyrotechnics—pouring flaming whisky, boiling water and sugar between mugs—than Scotch. The sublime Rob Roy has been with us since around the turn of the century, but that's sort of a no-brainer: a knockoff of a Manhattan with vermouth but using Scotch in place of the more mixable rye whiskey. No going out on a limb there.

By rights, the appearance of the Blood and Sand should have touched off a wave of Scotch cocktail experimentation. Still, by the 1950s the great cocktail theorist David A. Embury was downplaying such drinks in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks as having been derived from others made with rye or Bourbon—and not in a kindly way at that: "Just why you would want to make a cocktail with Scotch I wouldn't know." But he apparently did not know the Blood and Sand as it is not even mentioned in his book. (The benefit of the doubt says it's hard to believe he would have tried such a pleasant drink and then dismissed it.) At any rate, the Rusty Nail, popular with the Rat Pack in the 1960s, was the next great Scotch cocktail.

Most Blood and Sand recipes call for equal parts of each ingredient, and in that way it is similar to the Negroni and to the Boulevardier (gin, vermouth and Campari; whiskey, vermouth and Campari, respectively). One of the assets of the drink is the amount of variation it affords. First, you can mix up the proportions—and adding more Scotch than just the quarter part suggested is probably the best course. Go in the other direction, and it can get a bit insipid. Between single malts and blends, the breadth of flavor possibility is immense. Simply by choosing a smoky Islay like Laphroaig, a milder Lowland, such as Auchentoshan, or a Speyside somewhere in the middle, like Glenfiddich, you can change the entire complexion of the drink.

The choice of vermouth is pretty wide as well right now, with the explosion that is happening in that category. (You could even go with dry vermouth, but it seems to disappear in such a vigorous mix.) You might decide to switch in an amaro (bitter aperitif) or Campari. Cynar, flavored with avocado, is a good choice for the aperitif portion.

For the cherry liqueur (in some recipes referred to as brandy), there is probably no better choice than Herring Cherry Liqueur (commonly referred to as Cherry Herring). That brand pops with a nutty flavor that is particularly helpful to the drink.

Orange juice options are not to be downplayed. Blood orange offers a naming symmetry as well as a distinct taste. Freshly squeezed juice is what the takes the drink to the concierge level. Nevertheless it would be a shame to turn your nose up at this drink simply because store-bought juice was the only thing available.

Blood and Sand is also versatile in how it can be served. The classic recipe calls for shaking and straining into a cocktail glass, but for summer imbibing it may be advisable to keep the drink as cold as possible by also pouring it over ice in a highball or Collins glass or Old-Fashioned tumbler.

However you choose you have some great things awaiting you in your Scotch locker this summer.

Blood and Sand

1/4 part Scotch whisky
1/4 part orange juice
1/4 part Cherry brandy
1/4 part sweet vermouth

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. No garnish.