Picture it: a roaring fireplace, a plaid blanket around your shoulders, a few flakes of snow dusting the windowsills, the Avett Brothers on the stereo … wait, get that hot chocolate out of your hand! Scratch that hot toddy! When it's time to get cozy in cold weather, try some Scotch ale.
Though whiskey is the best-known booze that comes from Scotland, the country has a long tradition of using its famed barley and water to brew beer as well. Scottish ales, similar to classic English ales, are defined by their maltiness and low hoppy character. (Hops, while easy to grow in the southern portion of the British Isles, don't do so well in the chilly northern part of the region.) And the strongest and richest of the Scottish ale family are those designated as Scotch ales — also sometimes called "wee heavy," a wonderfully descriptive 19th-century holdover.
Today's American versions of Scotch ale showcase the style's gorgeous ruddy copper color and sweet, toasty malt flavor. Some brewers add a hint of peat-smoked malt to their grain bill, though according to The Oxford Companion to Beer, "Scottish brewers and historians insist that there's nothing 'Scottish' about beers with peat flavors."
5 Scotch Ales for the Holidays
Here are five Scotch ales I'll be cuddling up with this holiday season (chestnuts roasting on an open fire totally optional):
Though it's not as dark and lush as some of its Scottish brethren, Innis & Gunn's Rum Cask Oak Aged Beer is a big bottle worth buying. The rum-soaked oak chips used to age this Scotch ale enhance the inherent sweetness of the malts and bring a bit of molasses/brown sugar to every sip.
Dare I say that Kettle House Brewing's Cold Smoke is a session Scotch ale? I dare! This surprisingly refreshing beer from Montana is a light-bodied, light-drinking ale with a gentle roasted coffee finish and a maple syrup hue.
Dirty Bastard, one of Founders Brewing's flagship beers, tweaks the traditional Scotch ale style very gently for one of the most satisfying and sweetest pours of the bunch. Full-bodied with fruity, barleywine-style esters, its flavor matches its deeply ruddy, almost opaque color. (Backwoods Bastard, a seasonal offering, ages the Scotch ale in bourbon barrels.)
Scotty Karate, from the aptly named Dark Horse Brewery, is indeed a dark contender. It's got an espresso-brown pour and a taste to match, with hints of bitterness smoothed out by raisiny and toffee sweetness.
Though Oskar Blues' brand-spanking-new Old Chub nitro can makes this version an outlier in the Scotch ale game, I'll give high marks to them for bringing the two together. I dig this pairing of peaty, nutty notes with the creamy silkiness of a stout — but if you can't find the nitro yet, the tried-and-true original Old Chub remains a standard for the style too.