I don’t remember how or why the Smoky Cokey came up in conversation, but I do remember that it sounded like a horrible idea.
The cocktail is essentially what it sounds like: a Coca-Cola that tastes smoky thanks to the addition of peaty scotch. Specifically, the drink as it was explained to me requires Lagavulin 16, a scotch that sells for around $75 a bottle in the United States—not exactly cheap.
Never one to turn down the chance to try a new cocktail, I was up for having one. That said, I happened to be in Scotland at the time touring scotch distilleries, and asking a bartender to mix a high-quality scotch with run-of-the-mill Coke seemed like a recipe for getting removed from the bar, perhaps by force.
Luckily, the man who first mentioned the drink, Ewan Gunn, happens to be both Scottish and the Global Scotch Whisky Master for Diageo, the parent company of Lagavulin. Counting on the fact that they wouldn’t kick a whisky master out for the order, we asked Gunn to order a round at a bar in the small Scottish town of Oban.
The Smoky Cokey was fantastic. After our first one, my travel companions and I were hooked.
“People all over the world have been enjoying scotch whisky with cola (and many other mixers) for decades, and there are indications that whisky was enjoyed as a mixed drink going back several hundreds of years,” says Gunn, though he adds that only in Dave Broom’s 2014 book Whisky: The Manual was Lagavulin and Coke first highlighted as a specific pairing. “Purists are occasionally horrified by the idea, right up until the moment they try it—at that moment they almost always accept that one of the most respected whisky writers in the world [i.e. Broom] might just have a point.”
Unlike your traditional whiskey and coke, which is often made with Jack Daniel’s, the Lagavulin adds a layer of complexity and bitterness to the sweet soda.
“It semi-reminds me of a cross between a Vanilla Coke and something like a Dr. Pepper,” says Natalie Migliarini, founder and creative director of Beautiful Booze, a cocktail and travel website. “I think the subtle smokiness of the Lagavulin 16 just offers enough to entice you without being overpowering. The slight sweetness from the barley malt would also have to play a part here, though there may just be a certain amount of magic that can’t be described.”
Gunn says it’s even a hit with people new to scotch whisky as a whole.
“There’s no denying that Lagavulin sits at the more powerful and full-bodied end of the flavor spectrum, which can occasionally be a little challenging to those new to Scotch,” he says. “However, in a Smoky Cokey the rich smoke and intensity of Lagavulin is beautifully countered by the sweet vanilla and gentle spices of the cola.”
Since my own introduction to the drink, I have tried it with a few different scotches, but none quite match the flavor profile of Lagavulin 16 and Coke. The closest match I’ve found is Buichladdich’s Port Charlotte, which worked in a pinch at a bar in France that was out of Lagavulin, but still didn’t hit that flavor nail quite on the head.
The cola you choose for the drink is also perhaps as important as the whisky.
“I actually like to make mine with Mexican Coke when I have one handy, because I find the extra sweetness works even better with the fairly aggressive peatiness of something like a Lagavulin,” says spirits writer and whisky expert Clay Dillow. “But let’s be honest, it also works because it’s fun. It’s the corruption of a really well-crafted and universally revered scotch whisky. It’s an unholy marriage between the sacred and the profane, a satisfying blend of highbrow and lowbrow. The melding of flavors is genuinely good, but it’s the idea of the Smoky Cokey that’s just as appealing.”
And it’s a drink that’s starting to spread. In July 2019, a few months after my introduction to the cocktail, a bartender in Dublin, Ireland, spontaneously asked if I’d ever tried one, a question that launched a 15-minute discussion of the drink, which he claimed to have seen on draft at some bars due to its popularity.
“More and more bartenders are suggesting the serve in lots of countries—I think it’s because it tastes great, is a little surprising, and is easy enough to make that anyone can make it again at home,” Gunn says. “The most exciting place I’ve seen it served was actually at Feis Ile (the annual Islay Festival of Whisky and Music). The fact that the drink was being enjoyed by the people who make Lagavulin, and by some of their parents and grandparents who had also made Lagavulin decades ago, really showed how brilliant a drink it is.”
“The most random place I’ve ordered a Smoky Cokey was in Parma, Italy,” says food and travel writer Benjamin Liong Setiawan. “I definitely got a few are-you-kidding-me stares from my friends, but when they tasted it, they were won over by the unexpected combination of the sweet and smoky notes. There’s something so rebellious and mercurial about mixing a 16-year-old Scotch with Coke from the local grocery store.”
Or, in the words of Dillow, “There’s something about the sherry notes present in the Lagavulin that makes it really sing when drowned in high fructose corn syrup.”
If you want to give it a try at a bar, you’ll typically only pay the cost of the Lagavulin, which typically ranges from $8-$12, depending on the bar. If you’re mixing cocktails at home, here’s Gunn’s favorite recipe for the drink.
- 1.5 oz. Lagavulin 8 Year Old
- 5 oz. of your favorite cola (I really like Fever Tree Madagascan Cola)
- Wedge of lime (optional)
Add Lagavulin and cola to a tall glass (a Collins glass, if you have one) filled with lots of ice. Stir, then add a wedge of lime if desired. Enjoy.