Cocktail History: Rob Roy

By Jonathan Laurel November 29, 2019 Cocktails

It’s St. Andrew’s Day, which means we’ve officially entered winter drinking season and it’s time for a story.

As an illustrated introduction, we start with Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book.  The fairly laconic recipe list that makes up the bulk of Craddock’s book occasionally introduces brief one-liners about the odd cocktail or two.  They may tell where the cocktail came from, from where it takes its name, or some such joke about how it should be drank.  To me, these read as classic bartender memory fragments—some drinks and dishes stand out with a small fact like a tab in our memories.  We use that drink and that tab as a way to tell stories and engage guests.  (Service involves quite a lot of talking to strangers and we can’t purely run on personal anecdotes.)

One such note briefly illuminates the Rob Roy cocktail.  For all intents and purposes, the Rob Roy is a Scotch Manhattan.  But Craddock tells us the cocktail is a particular staple of St. Andrew’s Day celebrations at the Savoy.  St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland—much akin to Ireland’s relationship to St. Patrick—and Craddock says the drink was served “to open the evening for the usual enormous gathering of the Clans at the Savoy.”

The Rob Roy itself is older than Craddock’s 1930 book.  Circumstance and admittedly vague sources tell the cocktail was invented at the Waldorf Astoria in 1894, in honor of the operetta of the same name (Rob Roy, that is, not Waldorf Astoria).  The show opened in October of 1894 at the Herald Square Theater (a.k.a. the New Park Theater), a Broadway theater two blocks from the Waldorf.  Naming cocktails after shows seems to have been very much the fad and the Waldorf Astoria’s status as the new but quintessential stage of glitz and glam (it opened in 1893) makes it a believable launchpad for such a drink into the socialite echelons of Manhattan.

The show itself, of course, was about Rob Roy MacGregor, a Robin Hood-like character of Scottish history.  In fact, the previous show from the same team (Reginald de Koven and Harry B. Smith) was Robin Hood, both shows seeming to be a jaunty, masculine comedy.  But the Scottish folk legend’s name primed this cocktail for national status, and clearly by the 1930s it was more or less synonymous with the celebration of the nation’s legendary saint.  (The story of how he became the nation’s saint is, also, predictably, legendary.)

Anyway, with such a simple build the Rob Roy can be made at any time at any bar with its salt, but we like to trot it out for St. Andrew’s Day, in keeping with the history of our craft.  It’s warming and toasty and perfect for the dreariest of days—plenty of which are ahead of us this season.