A captivating cocktail

Ian Wisniewski looks at the Atholl Brose
By Ian Wisniewski
Various classic recipes can be attributed to bartenders inspired by a special event, a particular customer, or just their own natural creativity.
Atholl Brose came to prominence when one Scottish aristocrat was inspired to serve it to a fellow nobleman. This wasn't however so much a tribute as a special event, in the sense of setting a trap, as the Earl of Atholl's mission statement in 1475 was to capture the rebellious Earl of Ross.

With a death sentence hanging over him, the Earl of Ross had gone undercover by heading for the hills. However, the Earl of Atholl discovered whereabouts he was hiding, with intelligence sources also confirming that the Earl of Ross emerged from the hillsides to drink water from a certain well. Once in possession of this information, and having called for reinforcements, the Earl of Atholl devised a cunning plan.

The well was filled with a combination of honey, whisky and oatmeal (being a well this naturally provided the other ingredient required, water). Whether the earl actually invented Atholl Brose at this time, or made strategic use of a recipe which was already in circulation, is uncertain.

But it certainly worked, as the Earl of Ross lingered and drank more from the well than he should have. Hardly on red alert for any sign of trouble, let alone able to mount any resistance or attempt a get away, he was an easy target.

While it's clear who put the Atholl into Atholl Brose, the 'brose' part of the name raises a question. As brose refers to the use of boiling (not cold) water with oatmeal, why this was applied to Atholl Brose is uncertain.

Another historic date was achieving literary status in 1818, when Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian was published. This included the reference, 'his morning draught of Athole Brose' (which also indicated an alternative spelling).

Subsequently being enjoyed at the end of the day rather than at the start, Atholl Brose is a classic digestif as well as a Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) dram in the Highlands. The traditional 'open-door' approach to celebrating Hogmanay in Scotland, when anyone was welcome to pop in, also included the expectation that guests arrive with something to either eat or drink (like an early form of home delivery).

Exactly how to prepare Atholl Brose depends on which recipe you follow, with various alternatives on offer, some of which even omit the oatmeal (traditional in Edinburgh).

As a Scottish staple oatmeal is also the basis for other classics such as oatcakes, while heather honey is specified in some Atholl Brose recipes. As honey is made from the nectar of flowers, the species of flower determines the character of the resulting honey.

While various honeys are a blend, there is also a broad choice of honeys produced from specific flowers, including heather honey. Heather is of course one of Scotland's natural and abundant assets, with heather honey having a distinctive character.

Rather than going shopping to buy all the ingredients, and then having to prepare Atholl brose manually, another option is to just go shopping and benefit from someone else having done all the work.

Gordon & MacPhail's Dunkeld Atholl Brose, for example, has been around since the early 1980s, after the company acquired and relaunched the brand, which first appeared in the early 1960s. This includes certain herbs within a recipe which is, of course, a closely guarded secret. The malt whisky used is, however, identified as Benromach (with the distillery acquired by Gordon & MacPhail in 1993).

On the palate Dunkeld Atholl Brose has a luscious, syrupy texture, with subtle dried herbs, fruit notes and hint of orange marmalade. This is animated by waves of malt whisky, while also evolving further with a creamy note, and culminating in a rich, fresh finish.

Another option is a limited-edition Dunkeld Atholl Brose Deluxe. This was made to the same recipe, but the deluxe version subsequently spent a further 12 years aging, which accounts for the alcoholic strength being 31.7% ABV (compared to the regular version at 35% ABV). The deluxe version was launched in 2003, with the 600 bottle release long since sold out. Just to let you know what you've missed, a spicy aroma with subtle fruity elements leads to a smooth palate with rich fruitiness, accompanied by cinnamon and cloves.