WHEN IN Scotland, don’t ask what’s in the haggis, don’t ask what’s underneath the kilts and, for god’s sake, don’t ask for a Scotch ale.
You’re going to get a strange look from the bartender and then . . . who knows? He might pour you anything from Belhaven 60 Shilling, which at 3 percent alcohol is light-bodied and amber, to Dark Island, which at 10 percent alcohol will have you thinking barleywine.
Scotch ale in Scotland? It’s like asking for a quarter-pounder in France.
It’s only when you leave the country that Scotch ale is singularly defined as a comfortably numbing, strong, dark malt bomb. McEwan’s, Orkney, Traquair House, MacAndrew’s – these are the rich, malty brews that we’re after when we order a Scotch ale, a bracing sip for the cold months ahead. It’ll have you pulling on a tartan sweater and quoting Robbie Burns:
The night drave on wi’ sangs an’ clatter;
And aye the ale was growing better.
Strong enough to shake off the chills of a misty bog – that is Scotch ale.
The country’s other, lighter beers are carefully (if not ridiculously) distinguished as “Scottish” ale. More precisely, those ales – malty but less filling – are labeled as 60-, 70-, and 80-shilling ales, denoting the strength and the price one paid long ago.
But it is the prototypically strong, hearty Scotch ale that
we’re thirsting for here, what has become known, no less confusingly, as Wee Heavy. (The name originates from a heavy beer once made by the old Fowler’s brewery outside of Edinburgh and served in a wee bottle.)
Poured into a thistle glass, the malt aroma of a classic Scotch ale rises in an earthy, perhaps smoky haze of sweetness. It possesses a clean, caramel character, the product of a long, cool fermentation and the near-absence of hops. The alcohol might climb to 8 percent or more, but you won’t notice till the warmth reaches your toes.
This is the flavor and character that American craft brewers, like Founders, Arcadia and Sam Adams, had in mind when they brewed their own versions of Scotch ale.
It’s no misplaced stereotype, either, for this is the style that Scotland chose to export to the rest of the world so long ago.
After World War I, it was McEwan’s heavy ale that found its way to Belgium, creating a loyal fan base that lives today. (Did you know, by the way, that Duvel – Belgium’s outstanding, strong golden ale – purportedly took its original yeast from a bottle of McEwan’s?)
Before that, it was strong, dark Scottish ales that Londoners savored as medicinal bracers. In a memorable passage from a medical journal in the 1850s, a physician reported that one of his patients survived for 15 years on nothing more than a daily teaspoon of cod’s liver oil and this beloved ale. The doctor reported that “[h]e slept well, and suffered but comparatively little.”
Surely, the great 19th-century French chef and food historian Alexis Soyer had enjoyed a glass or three when he wrote, “Scotch ale is a seductive drink, and as perfidious as pleasure: it bewilders the senses and finally masters the reason.”
Seductive and perfidious. The same goes for haggis – and kilts.
Here’s a sixpack of Scotch ales to take the chill off this winter:
Traquair House Ale: Sherry-like; from Scotland.
Orkney Skull Splitter: Sweet and fruity; from Scotland.
Oskar Blues Old Chub: In a can; from Colorado.
Scotch Silly: A bit of hazelnut flavor; from Belgium.
Founders Backwoods Bastard: Bourbon-barrel aged; from Michigan.
Duck-Rabbit Wee Heavy: Nothing could be finer; from North Carolina.