Whisky, oatmeal, honey, and sometimes cream. While not an obvious combination for a drink, there are few things as Scottish as this ancient libation that could be called a cocktail if it did not date from a time long before such a modern term was coined.
This beverage emerged from the highland mists in the year of 1475, according to F. Marian McNeil in her 1956 book The Scots Cellar: Its Traditions and Lore, when the Earl of Atholl reputedly employed it to capture the rebel Lord of the Isles. The Lords of the Isles, decedents of Viking and Gaelic ancestors, had long ruled a largely independent domain across the western isles of Scotland with their own fleet of war galleys and had long been a menace to the Scottish kings authority. After rebellion broke out in 1475 headed by Iain Macdonald the Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, the Earl of Atholl was sent on an expedition to punish the rebel lord. F. Marian McNeil recounts that the expedition was rather successful:
“Ross being captured by a ruse of which the tradition is preserved in the Atholl family. The Earl of Atholl received information that Ross, who was hiding in the hills, was in the habit of drinking from a certain well in a rock, and he gave instructions that this well should be filled with a compound of honey, whisky and meal. Alas for the Lord of the Isles! Enchanted by the nectar that so mysteriously emanated from a hidden source, he dallied by the well too long! The compound has ever since borne the name of Atholl Brose. As a reward for his services, Atholl was granted the land a forests of Clunie. In the Charter, which is dated 1480, it is expressly stated that the grant was made ‘for the said Earl of Atholl’s singular service and expenses in suppressing John [Iain], Lord of the Isles, of old Earl of Ross.”
Brose is perhaps the wrong term as brose is usually prepared by pouring boiling water over oatmeal, as Marian McNeil describes in her book, to make a substantial mixture:
“…but Atholl Brose is unique in that the liquid employed required no heating, for whisky, as every wise man’s son doth know, engenders its own heat.”
Crowdie, the general term for a mixture of meal and cold liquid may be a more appropriate name but as Atholl Brose has been so named for centuries it seems unlikely to change.
The oldest concoctions may have been oatmeal and whisky mixed in the glass, a form apparently still known in the remoter Highlands in McNeil’s lifetime. The inspired addition of flavourful health honey to this mixture was perhaps no surprise given the enthusiasm for collecting this from wild hives in the autumn months. Here McNeil quotes from A Hundred Years in the Highlands (1920):
“Cameron [one of the estate workers] tells me’, says Osgood Mackenzie, ‘that as a young boy, before he left his home, there was an island in Loch Bhad A Chreamha where there was no necessity for hunting for bees’ nests, as the whole island seems under bees, the nests almost touching eat other in the moss at the roots of tall heather.”
There appear to be many and various recipes for Atholl Brose. Some such as the recipe preserved by the Atholl family do not contain any cream while in other traditions the drink has been refined to a degree that it no longer contains any oatmeal at all. When choosing a recipe to try myself I decided on what is reputedly the traditional recipe preserved by the Atholl family and prepared at their ancestral home of Blair Castle, where it was served to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert when visiting in 1844. This recipe uses strained oatmeal rather than adding the oatmeal directly to the drink:
“To make a quart, take four dessertspoons of run honey and four sherry glassfuls of prepared oatmeal; stir these well together and put into a quart bottle, fill up with whisky; shake well before serving.
To prepare the oatmeal, put it into a basin and mix with cold water to a consistency of a thick paste. Leave for about half an hour, pass through a fine strainer, pressing with the back of a wooden spoon so as to leave the oatmeal as dry as possible. Discard the meal and use the creamy liquor for the brose.”
Having rather fewer guests to serve than the Earls of Atholl and not being well acquainted with the standard volume of a sherry glass I looked it some of my other books for more information. In Scottish Cookery by the estimable Catherine Brown, expert on all things relating to Scottish food, I found a more usable recipe.
- 6 ounces/175 grams medium oatmeal (1 ½ cups)
- 4 tablespoons heather honey
- 1 ½ pints/ ¾ litre of whisky (3 ¾ cups)
- ¾ pint/450 ml of water (2 cups)
I made this recipe in a smaller quantity by dividing the recipe by four to make a final quantity of about 250 millilitres. I used a traditionally make medium oatmeal from The Oatmeal of Alford. After soaking the oatmeal in the water, I stained this through several layers of cheesecloth, squeezing out all the liquid. I then added whisky to this to a volume of 250 millilitres. I used a Teacher’s Highland Cream a decent and affordable blended whisky as I lack the resources of an Earl. Dissolving the honey proved more of a challenge as I chose to use real Scottish heather honey, which usually seems to be sold set solid. It took some time for the honey to dissolve in the cold whisky oat mixture. When this did finally dissolve bottled it and shook it well. Another quick shake is necessary before serving.
The complex sweetness added by the heather honey and the hints of creaming oatmeal combine with the whisky to make a rather unique drink. It certainly is a warming drink for a cold autumn evening.
(Any mistakes in this post can be blamed entirely on drinking the said brose).