Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: There are a lot of places that evoke dramatic imagery, but few rival Scotland. Even if the closest you’ve come to visiting is just watching Braveheart, it’s not hard to picture rugged cliffs, dark lochs, wind-swept moors clad in heather, and bogs socked in by mist—places where, regardless of the time of the year, a fire in the evening is welcome and a hearty drink is a requirement.
Scotch ale (which actually does hail from Scotland) is a beer born of this environment, and in many ways it captures the essence of a part of the world that still seems raw and untamed. Made from a base of pale malt and roasted barley, Scotch ales were traditionally dried and/or roasted in kilns fired by peat—lumps of decomposed vegetation cut from bogs, which, when dried and used as fuel, provide a smokiness redolent of certain kinds of Scottish whiskey. In the case of Scotch ale, the result is a beer with a pleasant smokiness matched by robust flavors of caramelization from a prolonged boil in a kettle (the vessel used to cook the grain and whose product, wort, ultimately becomes beer).
While Scotch ale is delicious and arguably suited for consumption year-round, its dark brown appearance, sweet and smoky flavor, and ABV (alcohol by volume) of between 8 to 11 percent make it ideal for the colder months, when you might want to do some drinking on a soft couch in front of a fireplace.
The taste: Scotch ale is a full-bodied beer with a luscious mouthfeel. While traditional methods of preparation have fallen by the wayside in favor of easier and more modern methods (no more hand-drying grain over peat fires), the flavors of smoke and peat still come from the addition of smoked malt, and its sweetness still arises from the caramelization that occurs during the boil. While not the strongest beer on the market, Scotch ales do tend to be powerful, both in terms of ABV and flavor profile. They’re also pretty easy to drink, as they combine sweet, malty, and smoky flavors with very low bitterness. The end product is a beer that’s generally easy on the palate.
Possible gateway: While Scotch ale isn’t a variety of beer you’re likely to come across on a day-to-day basis, there are a number of breweries producing some relatively easy-to-find iterations of the style. The most ubiquitous might be The Orkney Brewery’s Skull Splitter, a powerful 8.5 percent ABV brew named after Thorfinn Einarsson, the seventh Viking Earl Of Orkney. Aside from having a bitchin’ Viking on the bottle (as solid a reason as any to check it out), Skull Splitter is also known for being a robust, approachable beer with notes of citrus, warm spice, and dried fruit such as raisins and dates, and a peaty smokiness reminiscent of Scotch whiskey. Another good introduction to Scotch ale is the American-made Oskar Blues Old Chub, an 8 percent ABV beer with a strong backbone of malt complemented by flavors of cocoa, coffee, caramel, and a wisp of smoke.
Next steps: While Scotch ales have distinct defining characteristics, some brewers have definitely taken the style and made it their own. Founders Dirty Bastard delivers a smoky, deep-ruby-colored beer with an International Bittering Units (IBU) rating of 50—medium-high in terms of bitterness. In addition to the typical flavors of malt and spice, there’s also a very prominent hop backbone, which is rather unusual for the style. It creates a beer that’s simultaneously sweet, roasted-tasting, smoky, and bitter. Scotch ale gets even more intense in the bourbon-barrel-aged iteration named Backwoods Bastard, which has the same level of bitterness but clocks in at a whopping 11.2 percent ABV.
Of course, high ABV and robust, knock-you-down flavor profiles aren’t everything. Located in Missoula, Montana, the beloved Kettle House Brewing Co. makes a well-known Scotch ale called Cold Smoke. Sold in tallboy cans, Cold Smoke is flavorful but light in the mouth with a subtle coffee finish. It’s also only 6.5 percent with 11 IBUs, making it lower in alcohol than most other Scotch ales and incredibly easy to drink year-round. The fact that it comes in cans also makes it eminently suited for taking into national parks for hikes, for floating down a lazy river in an inner tube, or anywhere else glass bottles are prohibited.
Talk like an expert: Knowing where Scotch ale derives its flavors is likely enough to make you sound like an expert without being overbearing. Again: The sweet flavors come from the caramelization that occurs during the boil, while the smoky flavors come from using malts that are traditionally smoked over peat fires. Scotch ales are also at times referred to as “wee heavy,” a label that, these days, is typically applied when a beer is 7 percent ABV or above.