March 11, 2022
3 Ratings
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Gerri Williams. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.
  • Prep time 2 hours
  • Cook time 5 minutes
  • makes 1 drink
Author Notes

The Penicillin is without a doubt the most iconic new-classic cocktail of the 21st century. Unlike more ancient drinks like the Manhattan and old-fashioned, whose origins are muddled and murky at best, we can trace the Penicillin to a specific person, time, and place. The drink was created by Australian bartender Sam Ross at the legendary speakeasy Milk & Honey, on New York City’s Lower East Side in 2005, right as the craft cocktail wave—which ushered in a new era of appreciation for the “lost” art of mixing drinks—was cresting.

The Penicillin is one of those cocktails that feels more like a discovery than an invention. Combining the folk-medicinal trio of honey, lemon, and ginger with the malty smoke of Scotch whisky might seem obvious—but to the uninitiated, the drink is a revelation. Some of the best cocktails are ones that don’t rely on obscure or overly specific ingredients, and the Penicillin is the prime example of that. You need two specific styles of whisky, but the brands are not critical (sure, I have favorites, like Compass Box Great King Street for blended and Compass Box the Peat Monster for smoky). Plus, ginger, honey, and lemon are everywhere.

This drink also shows off one of the most important elements of the art of cocktail making: the ability to arrange flavors in space and time. By spraying the peaty-smoky Scotch over the top of the finished cocktail, the drinker first gets that intense, briny, and aromatic hit, which gives way to the sweet, spicy mix of the remaining ingredients. This drink does require a bit of forethought: The ginger syrup is relatively labor-intensive, but very worth it. You’ll also need a small spray bottle for the final Scotch application, but food-safe atomizers are pretty easy to find.

Once you’ve mastered the classic Penicillin, the next step is to use the same framework but for other spirit combinations. You want to find a base spirit that is flavorful but relatively neutral, then pair it with an aromatic partner. An already-classic riff is the gin-and-rose-water Son of a Beesting cocktail, created by Ross’s colleague, fellow Aussie bartender Michael Madrusan. Additional combinations to try out: reposado tequila and mezcal; vodka and St. Germain; cognac and Grand Marnier. —John deBary

Test Kitchen Notes

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What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
  • Penicillin Cocktail
  • 2 ounces blended non-peated Scotch
  • 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce ginger syrup (recipe below)
  • 1/4 ounce honey syrup (recipe below)
  • Smoky Scotch, for spritzing
  • Candied ginger and fresh lemon wheel, for garnish (optional)
  • Ginger Syrup & Honey Syrup
  • 1 pound ginger
  • 2 cups (14 ounces/396 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (3 ounces/84 grams) honey
  1. Penicillin Cocktail
  2. Combine the blended Scotch, lemon juice, ginger syrup, and honey syrup in a shaking tin. Add ice, close, and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into an old-fashioned glass with a large cube of ice (or several small cubes). Using an atomizer, spray a small amount of a very peaty-smoky Scotch over the top. Garnish with a piece of ginger candy and lemon wheel, if desired.
  1. Ginger Syrup & Honey Syrup
  2. Soak the ginger for 10 minutes, then scrub the skin with a clean sponge (no need to peel it). Juice the ginger with a juicer. (If you don’t have a juicer: Roughly chop the ginger. Pulverize it in a food processor until juicy. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer, squeezing out the juice with your hands.) Combine 1 cup of ginger juice with the sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until all the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool completely before using. (Optional: You can place the saucepan in an ice bath and stir occasionally to rapidly chill the syrup, which will give it a slightly smoother texture.)
  3. Meanwhile, combine the honey and 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) of hot water in a small bowl and whisk until combined. Allow to cool completely before using. Both the ginger and honey syrups will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 month and in the freezer for up to 6 months.

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