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Dram good beer: in search of the perfect drink
IT perhaps says a lot about the Scots that the country’s biggest celebrations are all in the depths of winter.
Maybe the natives are naturally more relaxed and convivial in the colder months, or maybe the winters are just so bleak they need monthly parties to keep them going.
Who knows? But certainly, as a Scot myself, I revel in the winter hat-trick of St Andrew’s Night, Hogmanay and Burns Night.
Convention says you should turn to whisky on such occasions, but I always yearn for a beer as well. Now, thanks to some excellent brewers and distillers, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Teaming up with Joe Clark from The Whisky Lounge in York, and a few willing friends, I decided to put some of the whisky beers on the market to the test, in an attempt to find the perfect drink for St Andrew’s Night.
Here’s how we got on.....
1) MacQueen’s Nessie (5.0% abv)
First up was an international interloper from Austria, brewed using whisky malt but without any actual whisky itself. Joe predicted a peaty aroma and said it actually smelled like the wash in an Islay distillery. The beer itself was pleasant yet underwhelming; enjoyable but nothing to write home about.
Score out of ten: 5.4
2) HardKnott Aether Blaec 2010 (7.7% abv)
This Cumbrian effort was aged for several months in casks from Inchgower distillery in Speyside, not one of the better known whisky names. The casks are described as 28 years old but are probably much older than that, says Joe, the age referring simply to the most recent whisky they held.
The beer is pitch black, pungent and potent, with a powerful, smokey, liquorice flavour. The whisky is bolder in the initial taste before being superseded by the beer, making for a very enjoyable drink. This version had been in the bottle for two years, but 2011 and 2012 versions are also available.
3) Harviestoun Ola Dubh Special Reserve 12 (8.0% abv)
Ola Dubh translates as black oil, and it’s easy to see why Harviestoun chose this name. The beer looks like it has come straight from a North Sea rig before being bottled and beautifully presented.
It aged in casks from Highland Park, one of Scotland’s best and most famous distilleries, giving the beer an enviable pedigree. We were lucky here in that we had two bottles, one bought this week and one bought three years ago, allowing us to see now it had aged.
The younger version was quite sharp and gassy, and one of our group felt the whisky and beer seemed to be “fighting each other”. The older version though, after three years in the bottle, was spectacular – a smoother, more rounded stout that seemed to melt in the mouth and delivered a brilliant, smokey, sweet body. If you can find an older version, or have the patience to buy a bottle now and leave it to age, then you’re in for a treat.
Score: 6 for the newer version, 8.6 for the older.
4) Bristol Beer Factory Imperial Stout aged in Glenlivet casks (10.7% abv)
Joe had slight concerns over this one – until we opened it. The subtlety of Glenlivet meant the whisky could have been swamped by the strong beer, he said. But having had six months in the cask, the beer had easily absorbed the whisky flavours. This was part of Bristol Beer Factory’s “12 stouts of Christmas” series last year, an impressive range that has been relaunched this year, and it was the first of our selection that left an enduring whisky aftertaste.
5) Williams Brothers Fraoch 22: heather ale aged in Auchentoshan casks (11% abv)
This was unlike anything else we tried and was our star performer of the night. The beer had a golden toffee colour, boasted a strong caramel aroma and tasted incredible. The strength of the ale, itself an unusual style, was enhanced by the sweet Auchentoshan flavours.
One of our group said it was like whisky mixed with treacle sponge pudding. Another friend has compared it to whisky sherbet. Certainly it would be enjoyable as a dessert beer, if there is such a thing, as well as in its own right. Joe said the character of the whisky casks came through more boldly than in the other beers, and felt the whisky and beer married together perfectly. The beer was bottled last August and the label says it could keep until 2021. If it improves with age, then it will be sensational by then.
6) Orkney Brewery Dark Island Reserve (10% abv)
We had high hopes for this one, which I had eyed many times before finally buying. The bottle is bold and classy, with a large swing cap and it was the priciest of the night, at £19.05 for a 750ml bottle. It was broadly similar in style to the Ola Dubh and Aether Blaec but was thinner than both of those and the taste did not live up to the potent aroma.
It was bottled only seven months ago and we all felt that, if left for longer, it may mature into a more complex, well-rounded drink, like the Ola Dubh did. However we also felt the onus was on the brewer to advise on that if so.
Final verdict: From the newly-bought beers, the Fraoch 22 was the clear winner – but the older Ola Dubh ran it close, and the strength of all the beers certainly makes them receptive to ageing. If you want a top-tip for tomorrow night, buy the Fraoch. But you could do a lot worse than buy a couple of the others at the same time, leave them untouched for a few years, and ensure St Andrew’s Night 2015 goes with a bang!
NB: All beers are available in York, at The House of The Trembling Madness in Stonegate and/or at York Beer and Wine Shop in Sandringham Street. Scores are based on an average of five people's scores.