Atholl Brose: The Honey-Whisky Digestif of Scottish Legend and Its Recipe
In the course of my current research into the folklore of the ales and meads of northern Europe, I came across a mention of a drink considered to be northern Scotland’s panacea. Called Atholl Brose, one manuscript just said that it was a mixture of Scotch whisky and honey, and another mentioned that it was to be used on a daily basis to keep the body strong and healthy and that it was even a better cure for colds than turpentine.
Better than turpentine? Wow! With a glowing review like that, it has to be good! Turpentine had been used for health reasons, though, so it’s not entirely a bad comparison. When you’re in a country that historically had to bleed its cattle during the winter for the calories (mixing it with oatmeal), you tend to make do with what you have. Even if that means sometimes using what’s generally a sheep medicine.
Atholl Brose, though, sounds like ambrosia straight from the mead rivers of Tir na nOg! Its name is derived from the Scots word for uncooked oatmeal, “brose,” and the region from which in it was legendarily created. The drink itself is fairly simple: whisky mixed with honey. Then many added cream and a slight few added eggs or egg whites. And there are a lot of recipes for this out there, some very modern and some hundreds of years old. I tried out the three cream-added recipe and will share that recipe later in this article.
But first, folklore! I have found two stories giving the origin for this delicious drink, and have written them in my own style. The first involves the grand beast of the Isles, the giant. In this case, the Giant of Atholl.
The Giant of Atholl
In the ancient land of Atholl, high up in the northern wilds of Scotland, lived the terrible Giant of Atholl. This giant terrorized the lands all around and every hero that attempted to stop him found their way in to the giant’s stew pot. With the giant stealing all of their cattle and grain, the local clans were on the verge of starvation.
And so came Dougal the Hunter, who decided it was time to teach this giant a lesson in manners. Rather than attack head on, having learned the dangers of this from those that went before him, he tracked the giant to his cavern lair and snuck around to see if there was a better way. After three days, Dougal began to despair that it was an impossible task.
On the third day, though, it dawned on Dougal that the giant would drink deeply from his cup at the end of the day (well, I say cup, but it was a hollowed out boulder, which is cup-sized for a giant). In the giant’s store room, Dougal took sacks of oats, jars of honey, and vats of whisky. He poured the oats and whisky into the cup, stirring it into a thick porridge, and added the honey to disguise the alcohol. The giant came home, found the sweet drink, and guzzled deeply, not bothering to think about where it came from. Perhaps life had been so easy and unthreatening, that he saw no reason to fear anything. Then again, perhaps this giant was just not very smart.
After quaffing the entire potion, the giant happily passed out and started snoring, having whisky fueled dreams of giantesses and mutton. Dougal crept up and slew the sleeping giant. He returned home and became a hero of the lands, as much for the recipe of this new drink, Atholl Brose, as for ending the terror.
Fighting with Atholl
The second origin tale takes place a couple decades prior to the turn of the century. The 16th century!
In 1475, John of Islay, chief of Clan Donald, Lord of the Isles, Earl of Ross, was leading a rebellion against King James III of Scotland, who in turn sent John Stewart, the 1st Earl of Atholl, to defeat this renegade. Scouting forays noticed that John’s men drank from a nearby well. The Earl sent the scouts back, under cover of darkness, with oats, honey, and Scotch whiskey. The mixture turned the water into a wonderfully intoxicating drink, which in turn made the chieftain’s men too inebriated to fight. Thus, the Earl of Atholl was able to quell the rebellion with ease. Perhaps the Earl was Dougal’s descendants!
Keep in mind, this is a legend. The Lord of the Isles did lead a rebellion against the king and was defeated by the Earl of Atholl, but through brave fighting on both sides. As intriguing as this story is, we know the Scots can hold their whisky better than any old giant.
Now that the fun stuff is over, let’s get to the fun stuff: making this nectar-like drink.
- 750 mL bottle of Scotch whisky (preferably not on the peaty side)
- ½ pint heavy cream
- 1 pound honey
- 1 cup ground oatmeal
- Silver spoon (optional)
- Mix whisky and oats and store, covered, for several hours in a cool place
- Strain until the oats are removed
- Stir in heavy cream
- Whisk in honey until smooth
That’s it! Very simple. The hardest ingredient to find may be the silver spoon traditionally used to stir everything with. I cheated and used electric beaters, and finished with my Guinness pouring spoon as a nod to the silver spoon.
When I attempted my first batch, I only had enough Scotch to make a quarter batch, which worked out well for me. It gave me an excuse to not only finish my Macallan 10 (so I have a reason to buy some Macallan 12!), but to also try the recipe with some Jameson Irish whiskey so I could taste for differences between the two. I appreciated both batches, as they were extremely smooth and easy on the palate. Of course the differences were pretty much just like the differences between Scotch and Irish whiskey. One just can’t go wrong with either of these liquors.
On a final note, some of the directions say to throw away the oats and some do not mention them again after the straining. They smell amazingly like whisky, and I hated the thought of that going to waste. I added some cream and heated it, hoping it would taste as good as it smelled. It did not. It may have been one of the worse things I have ever tasted, but I’m glad I took a bite. And then a second and a third to make sure it’s not an acquired taste. That, too, is not. In fact, here is my reaction.
Slainte and Wassail!