The Smoky Cokey cocktail won over the hearts and minds of the whisky-drinking public and proved that Islay whisky is ripe for mixing. As part of our Fèis Ile coverage, here’s its story.
There can’t be many of you who have never mixed alcohol and cola. It’s a classic combo. An established drink. A bartender’s go-to. Whether it’s rum, Jack Daniel’s, or vodka, there’s a good chance you’ve imbibed with at least a dash of the world’s most popular fizzy flavour.
But a single malt like Lagavulin?
It turns out it’s a delicious and perfectly reasonable combination. One that is called the Smoky Cokey, one of the most compelling cocktail creations of the 21st century for my money. Don’t look away now purists – sweet, salty, smoky salvation lies ahead.
A hair-on-your-chest Highball
Let’s start with the basics. The Smoky Cokey is essentially a Highball made with Lagavulin (8 or 16 Year Old, dealer’s choice) and cola. Most people agree that its origins can be traced directly from an experiment Dave Broom conducted in his excellent 2014 book, Whisky: The Manual.
In it, Broom set off on a noble quest to match the Scotch you love with its perfect mixer. Boundaries and tradition were damned as the classic soda water was tested alongside drinks like green tea and cola. When he came to pair Lagavulin, Broom was struck by just how perfectly the latter accentuated and complemented its complex array of intense, smoky, sweet, and salty notes like Lapsang Souchong tea, iodine, dried fruit, malt, and vanilla.
Finding the match made in heaven was all well and good. Selling it was another thing. This was an era where whisky conversation was only just shifting and starting to accept that single malt could be played around with. Now, one of the most respected whisky writers in the world was backing the most unlikely horse.
Colin Dunn was on board right away, at least. The Diageo whisky ambassador has been a regular at Feis Ile since 2000, which means plenty of festivals to prepare for and the unenviable task of needing to bring something fresh to the table each time. His experiments pairing Lagavulin with food meant that mixing it was always the logical next step, and after reading Whisky: The Manual, he had the ideal serve to use.
It was a risky first presentation. So, while at Lagavulin Distillery with guests prior to the festival, Dunn did something of a trial run. He popped 35ml of Lagavulin 16 Year Old in a Martini glass and topped it up with cola he’d allow to turn semi-flat to lose some of the bubbles. He put them on a silver tray, went out to Lagavulin pier, and gave the cocktail to his guests. People mistook the mixer for Punt E Mes, and Dunn learned both how receptive people can be if they don’t know what they’re getting, and that this drink had potential.
Sensing an opportunity, he enlisted the help of Alessandro Palazzi of Duke’s fame to help create a menu of Lagavulin drinks to demonstrate its mixing potential. The menu included a Negroni in which Lagavulin replaced the gin, a smoky Old Fashioned with Tabasco, and a Smoky Cokey, as it came to be known.
Word spread. The Smoky Cokey soon developed something of a cult following, although not without hiccups. Even now, if you ordered one at a bar there’s a good chance you’ll get given a glass of cola and a dram of Lagavulin separately.
It’s Lagavulin, for goodness sake. This is the purist’s choice. One that people who don’t drink whisky could never understand. The single malt that separates the casual imbibers from the serious drinkers. Just look at the comments of the 16 Year Old on our site and see the divide. For every bunch of 5-star reviews, there’s a 1-star from someone who didn’t like it all. And for every one of those, there’s an ardent fan decrying their lack of knowledge and appreciation.
The thought of diluting or altering it with coke sounded sacrilegious. Say ‘Smoky Cokey’ in the mirror three times and furious Nick Offerman appears. Which raises the question, why did it work?
The success of the Smoky Cokey
The theory is that the sweet, slightly bitter flavours and minerality of the cola lift the more earthy, damp, and muscular qualities of Lagavulin. With a traditional whiskey and coke, usually made with bourbon or Jack Daniel’s, you’re accentuating elements already present: sweet vanilla, baking spices like ginger etc. With Lagavulin, that’s still the case, but you’re adding a layer of complexity and intensity through the salty, smoky, and savoury qualities of the whisky.
It’s an unlikely success and yet it totally makes sense. It’s Daphne and Niles. And like any good marriage, it’s a combination that takes the best of each participant and elevates them. It’s sacrile-cious, and for every purist that’s outraged by it, there are many new drinkers who adore it. The Smoky Cokey has become a fixture at Fèis, with those at Lagavulin welcoming it with open arms. I’d wager the regulars would miss it if it went now.
For what’s a pretty straightforward mix, The Smoky Cokey has come to represent something of a triumph for broadening horizons and reconsidering the stuffy and backward notions that Scotch whisky, and in particular Islay whisky, can’t be playful and fun. We should celebrate its ability to make a powerful and occasionally challenging dram accessible to those new to Scotch, and talk more about how the story of Scotch isn’t just one of tradition, but innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Whisky is not supposed to stand still, and distilleries like Lagavulin are with us precisely because it have been evolving since its creation.
How to make a Smokey Cokey
It also works because it’s so delightfully simple. You truly only need Lagavulin and cola to make it. A wedge of lime or orange would work nicely as a garnish, and if you’re a true maverick you can go all out and ice cream to make a Floaty Smoky Cokey. But other than that there’s really no rules. You can use Lagavulin 8 or 16 Year Old, you can play with different premium colas and you can adjust the measurements as you see fit. A top tip is to have a dram of Lagavulin 16 neat next to your Smoky Cokey and compare and contrast. Adjust as you see fit from there. Personally, I find the below works well. Slàinte mhath!
A bottle of high quality (or just your favourite) cola
Wedge of lime
Add the Lagavulin to a glass (again, go fancy or as simple as you like) filled with lots of ice, and then top with cola. Stir, then add a wedge of lime if desired. Enjoy.