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Beer and whisky: from the mists of time, a marriage made in the Scottish Highlands

Added: Saturday, November 17th 2012

Beer and whisky have a long, intertwined history. Centuries ago, lost in the Highland mists of time, someone boiled a liquid, distilled it and produced a life-enhancing drink called uisge beatha or the water of life. The liquid that formed the basis for that first whisky was beer – or more precisely ale: beer without hops.

The language of beer-making and whisky-making have striking similarities. The first stage of the process, in which the starch in barley malt is turned into fermentable sugar, takes place in a mash tun. The result is a sugary extract known as wort. Then the processes go their separate ways: wort destined to become beer is boiled with hops in a brew-kettle, while the extract in a distillery goes to washbacks where fermentation begins.

Now beer and whisky are building a new and closer relationship due to the interest created by craft brewers in Britain who are maturing beer in oak whisky casks. Both brewers and consumers are fascinated by the new aromas and flavours developed by ageing in casks that have held whisky and which have started life containing either American bourbon or Spanish sherry. Suddenly beer has a new depth of character, with oak, peat, vanilla and fruit blending with biscuity malt and spicy and peppery hops.

There’s nothing new about beer being stored in wood. Before the arrival of metal casks, beer – including European lager – was matured in wood. But these were casks specially built for brewing and Czech and German brew masters lined them with pitch to avoid delicate lager beer picking up wood flavours. The use of whisky casks is a fresh development that has created a small but vibrant new sector of the brewing industry.

The new beer style dates from 2003 when Innis & Gunn in Edinburgh launched Oak Aged Beer. Its genesis was the result of William Grant approaching the Caledonian Brewery with the idea of filling whisky casks with beer to impregnate the wood and to give a beery character to one of a new range of whiskies called Cask Reserve. Russell Sharp, the owner of Caledonian, had previously worked for Chivas Regal, and he was intrigued by Grant’s request. His son Dougal  (pictured below) was head brewer at Caledonian and he supplied the distiller with a batch of beer. The plan was for Grants to throw the beer away when the casks were ready to be filled with whisky but the staff at the distillery found the beer to be so fine-tasting that they drank it.

Dougal Sharp was equally impressed with the flavour of the beer from the wood. As a result, he left Caledonian and set up Innis & Gunn – the title is taken from both Dougal’s and his brother’s middle names. Sharp developed a method of maturing beer that had been brewed Belhaven in Dunbar and transferred to lightly-toasted American white oak casks obtained from bourbon makers. Maturation takes place at Grant’s Girvan distillery and lasts for 77 days – four times the usual time for beer. The period includes a 30-day rest in bourbon casks, followed by a final stay in a “marrying tun” where the flavours infuse and natural carbonation takes place.

Oak Aged Beer has been such a success – sold in Japan, Scandinavia and the United States as well as Britain – that several other craft brewers have launched their own versions of beer matured in whisky casks. In Scotland brewers include BrewDog of Fraserburgh’s Paradox, using Islay casks, Orkney Brewery’s Dark Island with casks from Highland Park, and 1488 Majestic Whisky Ale from Traditional Scottish Brewers in Stirling, matured in Tullibardine casks.

Arguably the most interesting experiment with oak-aged beer has been carried out by the Harviestoun Brewery. Founded in Dollar, it’s now based on an industrial estate at Alva where it produces such prize-winning beers as Bitter & Twisted, Old Engine Oil and Schiehallion. Manager Chris Miller and brewer Stuart Cail teamed up with Jason Craig at Highland Park to launch several expressions of a strong version of Old Engine Oil matured in Orkney casks that have held single malts of 12, 16, 18, 30 and 40 years of age.

Old Engine Oil is a dark, Porter-style beer brewed with lager malt, pin head oats and roast barley, and hopped with whole leaf East Kent Goldings and Fuggles along with the American Galena variety. Water for brewing is pure and soft and comes, via the public supply, from the surrounding Ochil hills. The stronger version developed for ageing is called Ola Dubh, Gaelic for Black Oil. It’s brewed to 10% ABV but is cut back to 8% after resting in cask for six months.

Harviestoun is a well-travelled brewery. The journey from the original site at Dollar, in old cow byres on a farm, to Alva is short. But whisky casks have an arduous trip by boat and road from Orkney while the integrated, modern brewing equipment has come from the St Austell Brewery in deepest Cornwall.

Stuart Cail said the availability of casks from Highland Park determined which expression of Ola Dubh he could produce: 12 year-old casks are the most easily obtainable. The beer has an oily, heavy character that helps seal the casks. After ageing, Old Dubh is bottled in 20-barrel batches by Williams Brothers in Alloa, best-known for another Scottish delicacy, Heather Ale.

Harviestoun is into the third year of a 10-year agreement with Highland Park and, following a tour of the brewery, Cail and I flew to Orkney to visit the source of the casks. The reason for the distinctive flavour and character of Ola Dubh – quite different to the vanilla notes of Innis & Gunn – is due to the fact that Highland Park casks are bought from the Spanish sherry industry: even if some of the oak originates in the United States, the resulting casks have never contained bourbon whisky.

Ola Dubh glass

Highland Park and Harviestoun is a marriage of ancient and modern. The distillery, with its pagoda roofs and mellow grey stone walls, dates from 1798 and its equipment is a harmonious symphony of wood and copper. The only modern note comes from a stainless steel mash tun that feeds wooden wash backs. Around a quarter of the Optic barley used in the distillery is malted on Highland Park’s own floors. Following germination, the malt is loaded into a kiln where it’s roasted over a fire that’s a combination of peat from the local Hobbister Moor and coke.

The high point of the tour is the magnificent tiled still room with four enormous copper stills. Here the skill of the distiller and his team, allied to sweet malt, peat and the Orcadian breezes, produce a whisky that, in its 18 year-old manifestation, has twice been named the Best Spirit in the World by F. Paul Pacult in Spirits Journal. The next stage of whisky making at Highland Park is of special importance to Harviestoun: ageing in oak casks that have contained just one variety of sherry, Oloroso. The dark, sweet, fruity and nutty wine imparts not only distinctive flavours to Highland Park’s whiskies but also to the various expressions of Ola Dubh. The oak-aged beer has been an international success. It was launched in New York City and is now available in 37 American states. Chris Miller has just finished negotiations with the Liquor Board of Canada for the beer to go on sale there while it’s also available in Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan and Taiwan. Chris Miller says Brazil is the most unexpected market for the beer while selling Ola Dubh to the Germans, who think they and they alone make good beer, is a remarkable coup.

Oak-aged beers have crossed the border into England. Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, is one of the most innovative of the new breed of craft breweries. It opened in out-buildings at Thornbridge Hall in 2005 on a 10-barrel plant but the success of such beers as Jaipur IPA and Saint Petersburg Imperial Russian Stout led to a move in 2009 to a custom-built plant that can produce 20,000 barrels a year. Inspired by owner Jim Harrison, brewers Stefano Cossi from Italy and Kelly Ryan from New Zealand have delved into brewing history books to create such old styles as IPA and Russian Stout and have also taken a keen interest in wood-ageing.  The Russian Stout was used as the base beer for ageing in three whisky casks and the result was Highland Whisky Reserve, Speyside Whisky Reserve and Islay Whisky Reserve. The different aromas and flavours were intriguing: the Highland had oak, whisky and berry fruits, Speyside was full of creamy malt, burnt fruit and roasted grain, while the Islay expression was, typically, rich with iodine and seaweed notes. The beers quickly sold out and now Cossi is experimenting with a strong Old Ale matured in sherry casks.

In London, the major family-owned brewery, Fuller’s of Chiswick, entered the oak-aged sector in style in 2008 with a Special Reserve No 1, matured for 500 days in 20 year-old bourbon casks bought from Glenmorangie. Unlike Scottish brewers, Fuller’s ran into substantial problems with Customs & Excise before the beer was released. Head brewer John Keeling had experimented with sherry, port and bourbon casks before deciding bourbon containers created the best results. He was told by the excise officers there would be no problem producing Special Reserve as long as the beer did not increase by 1 or 2% in cask. Encouraged by this, Keeling bought 35 casks from Glenmorangie and filled them with his strong beer Golden Pride.

He was stunned to receive a phone call from a Customs & Excise officer who told him the tax officials had discovered a law against “grogging” from 1835 that outlaws any liquor that gains strength from spirit casks. Keeling was horrified to discover that Golden Pride in the bourbons casks had gone from 8.5% to 12%. He asked the customs officers if he could obtain a spirit licence but was told that breweries were expressly forbidden to have such licences.

Compromise was reached when Keeling filled the casks with a blend of three beers: 1845, ESB Export and Golden Pride. The blend reached 10% in cask but was reduced to 7.7% with the addition of fresh ESB (Extra Special Bitter). The excise officers were satisfied and Special Reserve No 1 went on sale to great acclaim. The batch sold out and Fuller’s in August this year launched Reserve No 2, matured in barriques from the cognac industry. The brewery plans an annual release: see

Harviestoun’s work on wood-ageing has not gone unnoticed at St Austell Brewery in Cornwall, which had supplied the Scottish company with its brewing kit. When I visited St Austell earlier this year I discovered in a corner of an underground storage area a batch of wooden casks. Head brewer Roger Ryman said he was maturing his strong Smugglers Ale in Speyside whisky casks for three months.

Smugglers, wooden casks, grogging and excise officers: from Orkney to St Austell, history is turning full circle.


Tasting notes

Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer. Burnished amber colour. Aroma is smoky and oaky, underscored by rich malt, vanilla and tart hops. More smoky malt on the palate with orange fruit and earthy hop resins. Lingering finish is bittersweet with whisky notes. Widely available in most supermarkets.


Harviestoun Ola Dubh.

12 year-old. Oak, butterscotch, caramel and smoky notes on aroma, with sweet malt, liquorice and butterscotch in the mouth. Smooth chocolate and roasted grain in the finish with powerful hints of whisky and bitter hops.


16 year-old. Enormous nose of liquorice, smoky notes and whisky. Dry in mouth with vanilla, butterscotch and intense smoky notes. Smooth finish with whisky, butterscotch and red berry fruit.


18 year-old. Smoke, peat, whisky, spicy hops and hint of chocolate and peppery hops on the nose with sweet, dark grain. Stronger chocolate notes in the mouth with warming whisky, sweet grain and gentle hop resins. Sweet malt dominates the finish with chocolate, whisky, oak and light hop notes.


30 year-old. Oily, intense smoky nose with bitter blood oranges, raisins and sultanas in the mouth with hints of chocolate, fudge and hops in the finish. Big hit of alcoholic warmth.


40 year-old. Big chocolate and cocoa aroma with burnt fruit, roasted grain and peppery hops. Honeyed malt and chocolate dominate the palate with whisky and smoky notes breaking through. Bittersweet finish with hints of peat, smoke, dark fruit, chocolate and hop resins.

Ola Dubh expressions are available from Beers of Europe and Beer Paradise online shops, Booths supermarkets, and from the brewery:


Tullibardine 1488 Majestic Whisky Ale. Pale bronze with an aroma of whisky and pear fruit, with vanilla and wood notes. Juicy malt in mouth with vanilla, wood and smoke, tart fruit and light hops. Finish is bittersweet to start but becomes dry with ripe pears, vanilla, wood and whisky notes. Available from


Dark Island Reserve. Black/brown colour with smoky, roasted grain, spices and liquorice aroma with hints of iodine and quinine. Whisky notes come through strongly in the mouth with dark burnt fruit, roasted grain and hints of chocolate and coffee. Dry, fruity finish with whisky and wood notes and hints of coffee and burnt fruit, molasses and hop resins. Available from

 BrewDog Paradox. Russet brown, with an oily, peat, seaweed and roasted grain aroma, with hints of chocolate and coffee. Big Islay peaty palate with wood and smoke notes and tart blood oranges. The finish is peaty with developing hop bitterness, smoke, iodine and roasted grain. Available from

St Austell Smugglers Ale. Big oak and vanilla nose with whisky notes, wood and vanilla. Rich malt, tart fruit, wood, smoke and vanilla in the mouth. Bittersweet finish becomes dry with warming whisky, tart fruit, burnt fruit, roasted grain, and gentle hop notes. Available from

*First published in Whisky Magazine, 2010 

dougal sharp