Scotch or Scottish Ale can be a bit of a confusing term; does it refer to a brewing style unique to Scotland, a style of beer heavy on malt but light on hops, or a reference to ale casked in scotch whiskey barrels? Well to be honest it can be all of the above. Luckily, like all great mysteries, the answers can be found in books, so let’s get a bit of a history lesson to figure out what the heck is going on.
Scotland has a long (think 5000 years old) tradition of brewing ales and the first beers produced were not really that dissimilar from the pale ales being brewed by their English cousins. In fact, the traditional Scotch Ales would have more in common with India Pale Ales than the sweet, ruby brews now tagged with the term ‘scotch’. The quintessential Scottish elements we have come to know really had more to do with geography than with intentional stylistic roguery. Hops did not grow as well in the north, beers were fermented at cooler temperatures and peat may have been used to dry the malt and/or imparted through the water.
Interestingly, the Scottish brewers saw these elements as flaws to be corrected out of the beer while modern beer geeks have embraced these ‘flaws’ (smokiness, peatiness, maltiness) as flavours to be celebrated.
Another interesting historical tidbit with regards to Scotch Ales is the nomenclature designating ale strength in shillings. The shilling categories were based on the price charged per hogshead (54 Imperial gallons). Stronger beers naturally cost more so Scotch Ales were labelled as Light (60/-), Heavy (70/-), Export (80/-) and Wee Heavy (120/-) – if you want to blow the minds of your beer geek friends ask for a pint of eighty bob! While the shilling terminology has fallen out of favour the strength designations live on to help us distinguish between the different types of Scotch Ale.
In order to try a cross-section of the style, I conducted a little mini blind taste test of three scotch ales; Rogue’s McRogue Scotch Ale XS (OR), not much description on the bottle but fyi I aged this for just over a year, Phillips Double Barrel Scotch Ale (BC), aged in Tennessee whiskey barrels and then in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, and Le Bilbouquet MacKroken Scotch Ale (QC) brewed with thistle and wildflower honey.
Thoughts on the Beers…
Rogue McRogue Scotch Ale XS
Beer Geek Girl: Deep orange with lots of sediment and some creamy coloured head. Sweet barley wine like nose and a strong sweet casked flavour. Lots of body, almost chewy but quite smooth to drink. Strong liqoury finish.
Beer Geek Boy: Cloudy with a sweet barley wine nose. Has an aged quality to it, and smooth to drink.
Phillips Double Barrel Scotch Ale
Beer Geek Girl: Deep orange and very clear with quickly dissipating head. Subtle sweetness on the nose. Quite light bodied with sweet mallet flavours and an ever so slightly bitter finish.
Beer Geek Boy: Nose and flavour fairly similar to an Extra Special Bitter (ESB). Very clear. A little sweet with mild hop flavours and an easy finish.
Le Bilboquet MacKroken Scotch Ale with Honey
Beer Geek Girl: Red, clear, carbonated with lots of creamy colour head that sticks around. Very sweet honeyed nose and a sweet floral flavour. Medium body, liqoury with a ton of caramel (burnt almost) notes.
Beer Geek Boy: Darkest colour of the three with some head. Has the appearance and nose of what I am familiar with for a Scotch Ale. Not a lot of nose but sweetness. Malty in flavour, heavy and strong.
*Thanks to Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer and the ever-informative Wikipedia for assistance (but not with the drinking part)