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Issue 85 - A Sip of Scottish Heritage

Scotland Magazine Issue 85
February 2016


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A Sip of Scottish Heritage

Christopher Coates raises a glass to Scotch whisky liqueurs

When discussing the identity of Scotland today, one would consider it out of the ordinary if the country’s national drink, Scotch whisky, didn’t crop up somewhere in the conversation. Indeed, in the minds of many the land and the whisky are inseparable; however, in actual fact, throughout its colourful history a great variety of tonics, beers and liquors have passed the lips of Scotland’s inhabitants.

From the early barley ‘ales’ which it has been suggested were enjoyed by the inhabitants of Neolithic Skara Brae, to the aqua vitae famously distilled with ‘eight bolls of malt’ by Friar John Cor in 1495; Scotland has a long tradition of producing – and enjoying – ‘lively’ beverages. In honour of this rich history, over the coming issues we will be exploring the world of Scottish drinks, their history and those being crafted today.

Long before the existence of liquor as we now know it, brews and distilled spirits were highly regarded for their perceived medicinal properties and were often infused with a variety of plants and sweeteners such as honey. It’s said that when the Greek explorer Pytheas (c 350BC) circumnavigated the British Isles, in the north he met a Celtic people skilled in the art of brewing a strong and aromatic infusion. Modern evidence suggests that heather and meadowsweet were used as a seasoning for this early alcohol, which backs up the notion that the Picts drank some form of heather ale to bring on the battle frenzy that so intimidated the Romans.

Certainly, the earliest examples of whisky, or the ‘uisge beatha’ (water of life) as it was known, were crude distillates that would have been, at best, unpleasant to taste and at worst dangerous to the health. This didn’t do anything to hamper the drink’s reputation as a useful treatment for a variety of ills and by the 18th century, Scotch drink (as was described in Robert Burns’ eponymous poem) was thought to ward off everything from colic to palsy - and even smallpox! It is also quite clear, however, that as long as such beverages have existed, they have also been enjoyed - to a greater or lesser extent - recreationally, which meant improving the flavour was a must. It was in the pursuit of a more palatable libation that early liqueurs were created, which over time became the well-known Scotch whisky based liqueurs we know today.

Long before the practice of aging in barrels rose to prominence as a means by which to impart flavour and reduce potency, raw spirit would be mixed into just about anything, including the ‘brose’ (essentially a thin, uncooked porridge which has been aerated and occasionally fermented) commonly eaten throughout Scotland’s history. According to legend, this concoction of brose and spirit is named for the 1st Earl of Atholl, who in 1475 quashed a rebellion led by John MacDonald, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, by using a little brose-related trickery. It’s said the Earl of Atholl was told of a water well, often frequented by the renegade MacDonald, which he would be sure to visit while on the run. Cunningly, the Earl ordered for the well to be filled with oats, honey and whisky. After stopping to quench his thirst, the Lord of the Isles was captivated by this delicious mixture, tarried too long and was captured; a conclusion which simultaneously ended the uprising and lent the victor’s name to a now well-known Scots tipple – Atholl brose. This creamy mixture is remarkably similar to modern cream liqueurs, although today the name is used by Gordon & MacPhail for their honey and Scotch whisky liqueur.

It is with slightly more certainty that we can relate the history of another famous liqueur, Drambuie. The story goes that in July 1746, following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) fled across Scotland, aided by his allies, which included members of Clan MacKinnon. As thanks for aiding his escape to the Isle of Skye, Charles allegedly gifted one John MacKinnon the recipe to his own personal liqueur. The tale is lent some credence by an interview with MacKinnon, conducted many years later by the Bishop of Ross and Caithness, Reverend Forbes, who recorded many details of the escape in his book
The Lyon in Mourning.

It is also known that during their tour of Scotland in 1773, the famous travellers Mr Boswell and Dr. Johnson stayed with a relative of MacKinnon’s and that they were served generously with a local punch or ‘dram buide’ (yellow dram). A century later, it seems the recipe - a mixture of herbs, whisky and honey - had become something of a local favourite and had passed to the owner of the Broadford Inn on Skye. Along with its popularity, the name also stuck and the owner’s son, James Ross, had the presence of mind to register the name ‘Drambuie’ in 1893; the rights were later sold by his widow to a spirits company in Edinburgh. In 1909 the first bottles of Drambuie as we know it went on sale and later, in 1914, The Drambuie Liqueur Company was established. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the popularity of liqueurs remains and new varieties are still being created. For example, the recently launched Magnum cream liqueur, which is bottled by the 2015 Distiller of the Year, The BenRiach Distillery Company. Delightfully simple, Magnum is a blend of single malt Scotch whisky from the BenRiach Distillery on Speyside and rich cream. Unlike many other cream liqueurs, no white spirits are added; this allows for a full appreciation of the flavours imparted by the Scotch. It was for this reason that Magnum was picked as the key ingredient in our own recreation of the Atholl brose recipe!

Although these sweet liqueurs are sometimes described as a ‘stepping-stone’ to drinking neat whisky, Scotch liqueurs are very much deserving of respect as a drink in their own right and can be enjoyed chilled, over ice or as a component in a variety of cocktails. Slàinte!

Recipe for Atholl brose

Creamy and delicious, here’s our take on Atholl brose made with Magnum cream liqueur.

Makes 4 cups (8 servings)


• Steel-cut / rolled oats or oatmeal – 2 cups

• Lukewarm water – 4 cups

• Clear honey – 4 tablespoons

• Magnum cream liqueur – 2 cups


Soak the oats in the water overnight. Drain the resulting brose (oat milk) through a strainer lined with muslin or cheesecloth. Discard the oats. Whisk together the oat milk and honey until dissolved, before adding Magnum cream liqueur and continuing to stir vigorously. Cover and refrigerate. Can be enjoyed immediately, although the flavour and texture will develop further during storage.

Consume within one week.

For a more potent mixture, the Magnum can be substituted for 1.5 cups Scotch whisky and 0.5 cups double cream.

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