Contrary to what one would assume based on the name of the beer style, a Scotch Ale is not brewed in some time-honored Scottish tradition. It doesn’t derive from the peaty Scotches of Islay, but rather was just born out of the strong ales that were fashionable in Edinburgh in the late 19th Century, a style that went out of vogue until the Belgians came around demanding better beer. They’re malty and sweet and often go by the name of Wee Heavy here in the U.S.
Because it’s not a very flashy name and the style typically doesn’t get represented on many “best of” lists, Scotch Ales or Wee Heavy’s tend to sit long on shelves, collecting dust. They shouldn’t. These ales will age with the best of them, too, so don’t be scared off by the year-old bottle tempting you at the beer store this weekend.
These beers are best enjoyed just a bit above room temperature, sipped slowly, and considered. Some of the following beers are the most complex brews you’ll taste this year. Most of them are easy to find, too. So take a break from your typical style choice this weekend and try one of these seasonal favorites.
Founders Backwoods Bastard
This Scotch Ale is Founders’ other Scotch Ale (Dirty Bastard) aged for “about a year in oak bourbon barrels,” according to brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki. This highly-sought-after beer comes in four-packs each fall, packs a hefty 11.2% ABV, and produces the sweet flavor of bourbon, vanilla, and caramel. Don’t like the bourbon-forwardness? Don’t worry. Stash a couple in the basement and taste this beer as it mellows over time.
Orkney (U.K.) Skull Splitter
To fulfill the Scottish Ale category, at least one beer should come from the United Kingdom, so Orkney’s Skull Splitter, a world-class example of the style, must be on the list. Blurring the stylistic lines between Wee Heavy, Barleywine and Old Ale, Skull Splitter is an accessible beer that still manages to linger on most import shelves, but shouldn’t.
Oskar Blues Old Chub
A Scottish Ale in a can! Leave it to Oskar Blues to make a great version of an underrated style. This reddish-brown colored ale is perfect for cold nights spent by a fire. Old Chub is 8% ABV, all molasses and dark fruit through and through and finishes with a slight booziness that keeps us warm through the winter months. You’ll have one and want another, but it’s boozy, so but maybe just one more.
AleSmith Wee Heavy
San Diego’s AleSmith produces some of the finest beers in the world, but their big beers — led by Speedway Stout and it’s variants — may be the finest. The Wee Heavy is a winter seasonal and that hides it’s 11% ABV quite well. Nice bitterness up front fades into a sweet toffee with a creamy finish.
Smuttynose Scotch Ale
A part of Smutty’s Big Beer series, the Scotch Ale is an underrated star. It’s not too robust, but a main feature here is its accessibility (wide) and price (great). Smuttynose suggests enjoying this with some friends while enjoying “the poetry of William McGonagall.”
Pipeworks Last Kiss
According to Pipeworks brewer Kate Brankin, “This Wee Heavy brewed with fenugreek and vanilla was aged in Buffalo Trace Barrels for nine months. Though we don’t recommend cellaring our beers, it’s our opinion that this one cellared well in glass.” It’s got a few years of age on it now, so if you find a bottle, open it. It’s ready.
Sierra Nevada Maple Scotch Style Ale
You’ll have to spring for a Sierra Nevada winter mixed pack to find this 7.3% Scotch Ale. It’s worth it. Known for their hop-forward beers, Sierra Nevada crushed this one, adding maple to an already sweet Scotch Ale to give it a deeper layer of complexity. It’s easy to find, too. Always a bonus.