When I first came across the Athol Brose in the Gentleman's Companion, I was hesitant--and yes this does seem to be an ongoing theme. With scotch, honey, and cream, I wasn't sure how this story was going to end. After doing a bit of research, I realized that perhaps I had dodged a bullet, in the form of oatmeal water, which is made by soaking oatmeal in water and then straining out the oatmeal. Charles Baker provides three recipes for Athol Brose. Each is fundamentally the same except in terms of proportions and preparation. Thankfully, the dreaded oatmeal water is nowhere to be found. But given its long history, variations are not really that surprising.
According to Scottish legend, Athol Brose was created by the first Earl of Athol when he needed to waylay a fleeing enemy while awaiting reinforcements. After locating the rebel faction's hidden hideout, the Earl (or Duke in some accounts) sent some men to fill their well with oatmeal, whisky and honey. Instead of fleeing the men became thoroughly inebriated and were thus easily captured. Can't say that I believe an group of armed, drunk soldiers would be harmless, especially in the age of hand-to-hand combat, but then again what do I know of military strategy. No one really knows how long this mixture, traditionally consisting of oatmeal water, honey, scotch, and sometimes Drambuie, has been consumed in Scotland, but the earliest recorded recipe dates from 1475. Even today Athol Brose is still traditionally served on New Year's Eve in many Scottish homes.
My first attempt at making Athol Brose was not successful. I initially chose Baker's second listed recipe, which included heating up milk, adding it to a mixture of Scotch and honey, and then chilling it before consuming. After overheating the milk (oops) and watching it curdle in the whisky (double oops), I knew something was wrong. Even after straining it twice, little bits of curdled milk dotted the surface of my swamp water-colored drink. The texture was very thin, but the taste wasn't unpleasant. But good god was it ugly. So I decided to do some research and try again later. Much later.
Weeks passed and finally I found the courage to delve back into Athol Brose territory. After some exhaustive research, I was ready for the challenge. Recipe interpretation seemed to have been at the heart of my earlier mistakes: where I read "warm" to mean actually heat up on the stove, others read it to mean "dry shake." Ah. Also, I discovered, via Darcy O'Neil of artofdrink.com, that when dealing with dairy, cream is a bartender's best friend and so it should be mine as well. These insights definitely pointed me toward attempting the first recipe instead of trying to rectify my mistakes with the second.
Athol Brose (recipe #1)
Really old Liqueur Scotch whisky, 1 part (1 1/2 ounces)
Clear strained honey, 1 part (1 ounce honey syrup)
Cream, 1 part (1 ounce)
Shake ingredients in a shaker without ice first, and then again, hard, with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Notes on Ingredients: I used a 1:1 honey syrup and Famous Grouse for the scotch.
Wow. Actually let me rephrase that, WOW. Who knew that cream, scotch and honey would taste so delicious. It reminded me of a scotch-flavored egg nog, though without nutmeg. Underneath the thick foam, the texture was velvety and smooth. The more floral flavors of the scotch stood out first, but they were followed and complimented by the honey kicking in its own floral complexities. I noticed the smokier notes of the scotch more on the swallow. I have to be honest though, this drink was a bit sweet. Balanced and with a certain dryness from the scotch, but still a bit sweet. But sweet in the same way that egg nog is sweet, or a brandy alexander. In fact, it seems to me that most cream drinks are a bit sweet. Of course the proportions could be played with further, either by decreasing the honey syrup or increasing the scotch portion. I am not a fan of sweet drinks, but I liked it so much that I was staring at an empty glass in something like five minutes. Given how surprisingly good this drink was, maybe my initial reaction about the oatmeal water was hasty. Only time will tell.
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