I prefer proper whisky,” is the stance of the more militant malt brigade on the subject of whisky liqueurs, as though they’re somehow improper compared to whisky. What kind of an attitude is that?Whisky liqueurs should be judged as a separate category with its own merits, and not as an ‘adulterated’ form of whisky. Then anyone who wants to abstain from whisky liqueurs can do so with self justification; on the basis of the relevant criteria, which is the flavour delivery, rather
than prejudice.As malts were originally served in the style of a liqueur, the category has genuine heritage and thus a totally legitimate status.Admittedly, back then this sort of serving style stemmed entirely from necessity, rather than catering for particular preferences, as early distillation equipment was inevitably crude.This yielded a raw, rasping spirit drink, compromised of a host of unattractive aromas and flavours.As maturation was also an alien concept for early distillers, the only way of improving the spirit was adding ‘distractions’ to soften and sweeten the palate. Natural products such as herbs and heather honey became an essential element of a distiller’s repertoire.This also explains the reason for serving whisky in the form of a punch, a concept that reached Scotland (and the rest of the world) from India. The original definition of the Hindu panch, meaning ‘five,’ referred to the number of ingredients combined to prepare a punch: sugar, lime juice, spices, water and alcohol.Drinking punch was invariably a group experience, as guests each took a sip from a loving cup (resembling a glass goblet, decoratively engraved) before passing it on.Another traditional recipe originally prepared on crofts was a combination of oatmeal, water, malt whisky and honey. This came to be known as Atholl Brose, named after the Earl of Atholl, who is said to have made strategic use of this concoction in 1475.He was sent to capture the rebellious Earl of Ross, who, as Lord of the Isles, ruled his domain like a sovereign, with a parliament established on Islay.With a death-threat hanging over him, the Earl of Ross took refuge on the hillsides. However, the Earl of Atholl discovered roughly where he was hiding.Intelligence sources also confirmed that he came down from the hillsides to drink water from a certain well, and this inspired a cunning ruse.The well was filled with a combination of honey, whisky and oatmeal, which would have been a very nice surprise for any fugitive seeking refreshment.As the flavour inevitably encouraged the Earl of Ross to continue drinking more than he should, it wasn’t long before he was in no condition to make a getaway, or even to mount any resistance.As a traditional hogmanay dram in the Highlands, there are various recipes for Atholl Brose, with Gordon & MacPhail’s version replacing oatmeal with certain herbs (unspecified), according to an ‘ancient and secret recipe.’ And that marks an important distinction for malt-whisky lovers, who invariably want to learn everything they can about malts.Distillers are happy to oblige, and discuss each stage of the malt whisky production process in whatever detail is required.But when it comes to whisky liqueurs, a degree of secrecy remains, particularly concerning the ingredients.The malt fan club might be more inclined to give whisky liqueurs more of a chance if the whiskies used were always identified.
But this is hardly standard practice, and some brands provide no more than an age statement for the whisky (which does at least confirm, to any sceptics, that ‘mature’ rather than ‘adolescent’ whisky is used).“The question most frequently asked is ‘where does your whisky come from?’ It’s a huge marketing and selling point - you can’t just say malt whisky - and people are a lot happier knowing the type of malt and the distillery it comes from,” says Charles Kenney, sales manager, Scottish Liqueur Centre, which uses Tomatin single malt in its range of malt whisky liqueurs.If ingredients beyond the whisky are also part of your checklist, then the recipe for Orangerie has some alluring elements.Produced by John Glaser, blended Scotch is the basis for an infusion using organic Navellino oranges from the Italian region of Basilicate (I like it already!).Having previously made this infusion exclusively for friends and family, a kitchen table being the ‘production unit,’ John had to put in extra shifts when he prepared 250 bottles of Orangerie as a Christmas gift to friends in the trade last year.The preparation method was just as ‘hands on,’ with John adding small strips of orange zest, personally peeled, followed by cassia bark and cloves, for an infusion lasting up to three weeks.Once strained and decanted, a few strips of fresh orange zest were added and sealed in the bottle, ensuring that the flavour continues to develop.The concept also continues to develop, with limited amounts of Orangerie available from selected retailers, and John plans to release Scotch whisky infusions on a regular, commercial basis.Rather than appearing in mere desserts, various fruits are given a far more important role by The Scottish Liqueur Company, using fresh Scottish fruit together with Scottish honey and Tomatin single malt.In Murray’s Scottish Highland Liqueur, for example, sloes are the fruit in question, while the range of Scottish Country Liqueurs comprises blaeberry, bramble (blackberry) and cranberry-raspberry.These followed the company’s inaugural liqueur, Columba Cream, made with malt whisky, honey and Scottish cream.Cream liqueurs have been thriving ever since Baileys (using Irish whiskey) was launched in 1974. Meanwhile, the line-up of Scottish options continues to grow, with Drumgray Highland Cream liqueur for example, combining Scottish double cream and Deanston single malt.Another recent addition is Drambuie Cream, comprising 15 to 17-year-old malts blended with fresh dairy cream and heather honey, launched in 2000.This was almost 100 years after the original Drambuie, which in turn has even more historic origins.Being chronicled as the personal liqueur of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) provides a great start for Drambuie. Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan in 1745 in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the reigning Hanoverian family, and reinstate the Stuart succession.After initial successes he was defeated on Culloden Moor in April, 1746, and reached Skye in July.Sheltered by Captain John MacKinnon of Strathaird, legend has it that the Prince gave the clan his only remaining possession, a liqueur recipe, before departing for the safety of France.For more than 150 years the family kept this recipe secret, until Malcolm MacKinnon came to Edinburgh and began producing the liqueur on a commercial basis in 1909.While the origin of the name is unclear, it evolved from the Gaelic ‘an dram buidheach’ meaning ‘the drink that atisfies.’ This particular form of
satisfaction stems from malt whiskies and a hint of fragrant heather honey, within a secret recipe of herbs and spices.If you find that provenance heightens the appeal of a whisky liqueur, then the Cock o’ the North has impeccable credentials, being launched by the Marquis of Huntly in 1998.He is descended from the Gordon Clan; the Duke of Gordon sponsored the 1823 Act of Parliament, which reformed the Scotch whisky industry.Ancestry also provided a name for this liqueur: the chief of the Gordon Clan has been known as the ‘Cock o’ the North’ since the 16th century, due to the family’s strength and prowess in battle.According to family legends, the Gordons blended their whisky with blaeberry juice (ie. bilberries, native Highland berries) and other ingredients. This created a fortifying tonic, which was also offered to men when going in to battle and on long journeys.While various whisky liqueurs benefit from a fascinating heritage, what does the future hold for the category? Will brands find favour with more whisky drinkers, by offering a different perspective on a familiar favourite? And how successfully can they appeal to a broader drinking public?In some cases, the answer is they can do so very successfully.“From our marketing and direct sales across the country, we are converting people to the brand who are whisky drinkers, non-whisky drinkers and liqueur drinkers,” says Alistair Aboyne, managing director, Cock o’ the North.Another asset which should benefit the category is the current cocktail revival,dating from the mid-1990s and continually accelerating, which has brought various liqueurs to the fore.Some whisky liqueurs are already thriving on the basis of greater versatility, whether served over ice or as a cocktail ingredient. Moreover, we tend to be more experimental when drinking cocktails, and consequently more prepared to try something unfamiliar.This means that cocktails provide a prime opportunity for liqueurs to be ‘discovered,’ and then, hopefully, valued for their own merits.