Scotland’s national drink is a global success story. Last year, 96 million cases of whisky were shipped overseas – that’s 40 bottles per second.
Whisky brings in about £4.3 billion in exports, with about £1bn of that going into the Treasury through duty and taxes. There are 3.6 billion litres of whisky lying slumbering in warehouses throughout the country, with a further 275 million litres of malt being produced each year to meet the thirst for Scotch both at home and abroad.
So what happens when one great Scottish industry in the form of distilling meets another in the shape of brewing? The answer is whisky beer, one of the most interesting marriages created by Scotland’s thriving micro-brewing sector.
Most breweries choose to flavour their beer with whisky by either ageing it in barrels that have previously contained Scotch or by adding oak chips that have been flavoured with the spirit. The resulting flavours in the beer will depend on the type of whisky cask that’s been used – Islay whiskies are likely to impart lots of peat and smoke notes, while Speyside or Highland Scotch are more likely to add tastes of honey or caramel.
The following selection shows that a whole range of aromas and tastes can be created with whisky beers, offering some rich and rewarding fireside tipples for the winter months. Keep your eye on the alcohol content though – these are strong beers, not simple session ales.
TULLIBARDINE 1488, BLACK WOLF (7%)
One of the first whisky beers to be made, 1488 has a light golden colour, which hints at the aromas and flavours to come. Sweet honey and caramel smells are joined by notes of pine on the nose, leading through to more caramel and honey on the palate. The beer is light, not cloying, making it a refreshing drink despite the high alcohol level.
ORACH SLIE, HARVIESTOUN (6%)
A really well-balanced beer, with the refreshing citrus finish preventing the caramel flavours from becoming too cloying. Harviestoun ages its lager in casks that were previously used by the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside. The brewery has also produced a series of Ola Dubh beers aged in various Highland Park casks from Orkney.
TENNENT’S BEER AGED WITH WHISKY OAK, TENNENT CALEDONIAN (6%)
Going on sale earlier this year, you can put any thoughts of the big red T out of your mind when you tuck into this whisky beer. The light mahogany colour points the way to the spun sugar and toffee aromas you’ll find on the nose, which are then joined by sweeter honey and caramel flavours on the palate. This is a richer beer, with a fuller feel in the mouth.
WHISKY BARREL, OAK WOOD SERIES, EDEN MILL (7%)
Eden Mill near St Andrews in Fife is one of the Scotland’s most exciting micro-breweries, producing a range of interesting small-batch beers. Its whisky barrel offering has spent around 90 days in a cask that previously contained Highland Scotch, with others in the range being aged in rum and bourbon containers. The whisky incarnation is a rich mahogany colour, with nutty and toffee aromas joined by fresher lemon notes. The taste is more malty and toasty, with flavours of fruit cake and sweet chocolate. It’s rich and sweet, with plenty of body.
BARRELMASTER’S RESERVE HIGHLAND CASK, INNIS & GUNN (7.4%)
Innis & Gunn Original started off life as a beer to impart flavour to whisky barrels that were used to make William Grant’s Cask Ale Reserve Blended Scotch – the beer took on some of the oak flavours and textures from the cask and was a big hit when it went on sale. So it seems appropriate that the process is now being carried out in reverse, with a Scotch ale being aged in barrels that previously housed an 18-year-old single Highland malt. The result is a beer that’s golden in colour, with aromas of honey and pine leading into flavours of sweet honey and dried fruit, but with a freshness that stops it from becoming cloying. Keep your eyes peeled for another limited edition, Innis & Gunn Malt Whisky Trail, which has been matured in casks from each of Scotland’s five whisky regions.
SCOTCH WHISKY PORTER, INNIS & GUNN (7.4%)
Not content with putting lighter ales into whisky barrels, Innis & Gunn has also added oak that’s been infused with Scotch to inject flavour into a porter, a style of dark beer that is ideal for cold winter evenings. Plenty of nutty, smoky and malty notes on the nose, followed by sweet chocolate and coffee flavours. There is smoke and coffee in the finish too, but it’s not overly bitter, unlike many porters.