Is the Black Nail Cocktail the Perfect Cocktail for St. Patrick’s Day? - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Is the Black Nail the Perfect Drink for St. Patrick’s Day?

The backstory of the Black Nail is shrouded in considerable mystery. It’s likely that it blossomed in popularity about the same time as the better-known and similarly named Rusty Nail. The history of that drink is also somewhat murky, but it’s known to have risen into prominence in the early 1960s at the 21 Club in New York City—a swanky joint that was famous for marrying spirits with a generous pour of liqueur (they also popularized the Bénédictine & Brandy).

The Black Nail cocktail is essentially a Rusty Nail, but Irish rather than Scottish. It’s generally made with equal parts of Irish Mist and Irish whiskey (compared to the 2:1 ratio of scotch and Drambuie for its cousin). One spurious tale claims that the Rusty Nail got its name after some enterprising bartender used an oxidized spike to stir a cocktail. But a Black Nail? I’ve found no lore, spurious or otherwise, to explain the etymology. But given the history of Irish whiskey, and the era in which the drink rose to popularity, the image of a long, dark nail sealing a coffin seems perfectly on point.

rusty nail recipe
Rusty Nail | Photo by Stuart Mullenberg

Irish whiskey was once everywhere, but by the middle of the last century, it was nowhere. Whiskey had been made in Ireland since the dawn of whiskey times, and eagerly hitched rides on sailing ships around the globe. (As early as 1802, a tavern in Philadelphia was proudly advertising “genuine Irish whiskey to be sold by the gallon or otherwise.”) Well into the 19th century, whiskey made in Ireland outsold whisky made in Scotland, and was considered the more palatable and sophisticated of the two.

But starting in the early 1900s, Irish whiskey began a decades-long stumble. Scotch producers began releasing a milder, blended whisky crafted on column stills (the Irish stuck to their tradition of less economical if more flavorful pot stills), and Ireland’s claim to the global market eroded. Then came the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and disruptions in trade with Britain, one of Ireland’s largest markets. Sales were further decimated by Prohibition in America (1920-1933), compounded by some ill-guided decisions by the Irish government to restrict exports of whiskey to capture excise taxes at home.

By the 1950s, Irish whiskey was in full flounder. It didn’t help that public tastes in the United States were moving away from full-bodied whiskey to lighter spirits such as vodka. Sweetness grew in prominence. In 1954 a liqueur called Irish Mist arrived on American shores—it was essentially Irish whiskey dressed in a bright, wide-lapeled jacket, tarted up with various herbs and heather honey (“the nectar gathered by bees on flowering bogs,” according to a 1959 account). No judgment—after all, this was the apogee of the extravagant liqueur era, and the makers of Canadian whisky (Yukon Jack), scotch (Drambuie), brandy (B&B), among others, hustled to remain part of the conversation by catering to a public that didn’t want liquor to taste like liquor.

Irish Mist was popular, but it failed to arrest the slide of Irish whiskey.

Irish Mist was popular, but it failed to arrest the slide of Irish whiskey. By the mid-1960s, Ireland was home to just four distilleries—down from around 160 at its 19th-century peak. None of the four was thriving, and all were faced with extinction.

And so it came to pass that in the winter of 1966 a small fleet of cars quietly pulled up at the County Waterford estate of John Jameson, one of the island’s more prominent distillers. Out came representatives of two other major Irish whiskeys: Powers and Paddy. They made small talk, then the discussion moved to the dire state of affairs for distillers. Ultimately, they agreed to put aside their differences and long history of competition, and to merge their operations, creating Irish Distillers Ltd.

Whether any of the distillers would have perished had the merger not taken place remains a matter of counterfactual speculation. What is known is that the merger was successful. They maintained their distinct brands, but shared market research, distribution, and sales teams. In 1988, French liquor giant Pernod-Ricard bought the merged companies, and began expanding the modern distillery in Cork, located alongside the historic ca. 1820s Midleton Distillery. Today, much of the noted whiskey coming out of Ireland—Redbreast, Green Spot, Powers—is made here. Not to mention Jameson, which accounts for seven out of every 10 bottles of Irish whiskey sold in the United States.

No one recorded what the three distillers drank, if anything, when they met in County Waterford more than a half-century ago to plot the survival of Irish whiskey. But let’s just agree that it was a Black Nail. And why not? It was a drink that represented the industry’s glorious past in its pure Irish whiskey, and its parlous condition in 1966 with the sweetened Irish Mist. And in the sound of the clinking of the glasses? A future in which the island’s whiskey industry would not only survive, but rebound to glorious heights.

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend