Malt Whisky Trail – Giving ‘Scotch’ Ale a Whole New Meaning
Despite having a brewing tradition which predates distilling by more than 4,400 years, it’s impossible to deny that whisky is Scotland’s national drink. Recognized as one of the finest spirits in the world, Scotch malt whisky is both an important industry and source of national pride. Yet traditional Scottish beer and whisky share more in common than the base ingredients of barley, water and yeast. Counterparts in many ways, these two beverages have helped to shape a national identity. Without one there likely wouldn’t have been the other. If not for malting, there might not have been Scotch whisky. If not for whisky, there might not have been malty Scottish ales; after all the popularity of malt dominated beers in Scotland has to be attributed in some part to their ability to contrast the harshness of whisky. In the latest chapter of this shared history, Scottish brewers Innis & Gunn have released a new, limited edition ale that has been aged in whisky casks from across the country.
As a tribute to Scotland’s five main malt whisky producing regions, Innis & Gunn brewed the appropriately named ‘Malt Whisky Trail‘ with the intention of aging it in casks, carefully selected from Campbeltown, Highlands, Islay, Lowlands and Speyside distilleries. After a maturation period of 30-days, each barrel yielded its own unique beer, which were later blended to create a product with multiple layers of flavour; subtly showcasing the spirit of each region while, as a whole, coming across as distinctly Scottish. Innis & Gunn chose a Scottish Strong Ale, with its robust caramel malt profile, as their blank canvas. Also known as a Wee Heavy or 90-Shilling Ale, it promised to lend itself nicely to the aging process; taking on some of the characteristics from the whisky cask, while maintaining its own personality. Packaged in a beautifully designed whisky-box, soon to be available in the LCBO, this beer seemed fascinating in concept, but would it deliver?
It was Scotch initially, not beer, that taught me how to perceive and appreciate the different flavours present in such drinks. I’d go to the monthly Scotch tastings at the Highlander Pub in Ottawa, where they would challenge participants to blindly match tasting notes with the samples they provided. At first, I was awful at it. I’d be lucky to have a 25% success rate – particularly with the heavily-peated Islay whiskies, where the bold smokey and iodine flavours made it difficult to decipher much else. But gradually I improved and became fascinated with the diverse tastes and textures of Scotch. Without Scotch, I might not have come to appreciate beer the same way I do now. So naturally, I was pretty excited to have a chance to find out how Malt Whisky Trail turned out.
That said, a Wee Heavy is not something I’d typically crack open on a warm afternoon in July. Like most people, I have a tendency towards drinking light to medium bodied beers when it’s warm out. In contrast, a dextrinous, full-bodied Strong Scottish Ale is something best saved for a damp, dreary day. Right? Though skeptical about the timing of this release, I left my preconceptions behind…
Malt Whisky Trail pours a beautiful dark amber, highlighted with ruby tones and crowned by a butterscotch-tan head; which was retained longer than expected. The aroma is dominated by rich toffee malts and supported by what I suspect are some cask derived notes of orange zest, almond, dark cherry, raisin and ginger. It also carries a trace of clove and the slight hint of delicious peat to come. What little peat there was on the nose comes out a bit stronger in taste, as it plays with the deep toffee, vanilla and dark fruit flavours. Orange zest, oak and a little allspice balance out the decadent, dessert-like qualities, before finishing fruity, with dark cherry and plum, and with the slightest alcohol burn. Despite having a wonderful, creamy mouthfeel, it’s actually more of a medium bodied beer. Even at 7.4% ABV, it goes down very easy and is, surprisingly, not out of place on a warm mid-summer evening.
My overall impressions of Malt Whisky Trail are very positive. Not only was it much more refreshing than expected, but I thought the balance of flavour was the best of any Innis & Gunn beer I’ve tried so far.
The one thing I can’t say for certain, however, is how well they showcased the five whisky regions in this effort. Without knowing what barrels were used, it’s practically impossible to pick out the notes that correspond to each region – that is to say if there are any. I guess, in some ways, that might be the mark of a great blend. But there’s still part of me that would have liked to experience the regional differences a little more vividly. If they ever revisit this concept, I think it would be extremely cool to have them include the unblended versions alongside the final product in a mix pack.
I paired Innis & Gunn’s Malt Whisky Trail with a fresh and light Summer Haggis Flatbread – click here for the recipe.