The story of Drambuie begins over 267 years ago in July 1746. Prince Charles Edward Stuart (known also as Bonnie Prince Charlie) was on the run, after defeat at the Battle of Culloden had ended his hopes of restoring the Stuarts to the throne of Great Britain.
The Prince was pursued by the King’s men across the Highlands and Islands of Western Scotland, bravely aided by many Highland Clans. Among them was Clan MacKinnon whose chief, John MacKinnon, helped the Prince escape from The Isle of Skye. In thanks for his bravery the Prince gave John MacKinnon the secret recipe to his personal liqueur, a gift that the Clan were to treasure down the generations. An extraordinary elixir that would, many years later, become known to the world as Drambuie.
A New Dawn
In 1873, the recipe was passed on to John Ross of The Broadford Hotel on Skye, who started making it to serve in his hotel. Customers who tasted it commented in Gaelic that it was “an dram buidheach“, the drink that satisfies shortened to Drambuie. The name stuck and in 1893, John’s son James registered it as a trademark. Malcolm MacKinnon travelled from Skye to Edinburgh in 1900 to work in the wines and spirits business. He recognised the opportunity that the liqueur offered and in 1909 produced Drambuie for the first time on the Scottish mainland paying a royalty to the widow of James Ross. By 1914 he had acquired the recipe and the trademark and he established The Drambuie Liqueur Company.
Word began to spread about the Drambuie elixir, and it became the first liqueur to be introduced to the House Of Lords in 1916. Then a year later Buckingham Palace ordered a case for its cellars. The breakout of the First World War interrupted the rise of Drambuie’s popularity commercially, however it did gain favour amongst many Army officers, becoming an Officers Mess staple in the Highland regiments.
After The First World War Drambuie began to exploit new international opportunities. As it began to gain a foothold in America, prohibition struck. Initially this was a problem for Drambuie, with supplies no longer legally allowed to enter America. Many distillers and drink producers began to participate in the secretive Sub Rosa campaign, where pirates & smugglers were used to get Scottish spirits into America. In fact there is a recorded instance of Drambuie being seized by US Customs officers en route from Canada in 1931.
By the end of prohibition in 1933 Drambuie had become a very popular drink in the speakeasies of the East Coast, due to its ability to mix well with the raw American prohibition spirits and mask their unrefined flavours.
These early concoctions became the forerunners to the famous Rusty Nail. Its exact origins are uncertain but we know that it first appears on the menu of an infamous New York club in the early 60s. At a time when the legendary carousing of the Rat Pack came to prominence, the Rusty Nail was adopted by the scene, confirming the drink's iconic status and establishing its place in pop culture history.