The Legend of the Traditional Scottish Cocktail, Atholl Brose
Atholl Brose is a traditional Scottish whisky cocktail that dates to the 15th century. The first part of the name, Atholl, comes from the region in the Scottish Highlands called Atholl or Athole, derived from the Gaelic word of Athall, loosely meaning “way to the north.” The second part of the name, brose (also brewis, browse, or brewst), represents water or milk poured over grains (oats), creating a porridge. The first part of the name makes sense; it is a Scottish region, but the second name? Atholl Soup? Why on earth would porridge be in a drink?
While researching Atholl Brose, I read many historical references to the power struggle between James Stewart (James III of Scotland), the Earl of Atholl, and John MacDonald, MacDonald Clan Leader, the 11th Earl of Ross, and the fourth (and last) Lords of the Isles. It is an alleged battle between the two, a glorious mixture of history and legend that leads us to the creation of Atholl Brose.
Around 1475, James Stewart and John MacDonald were faced with what is undoubtedly the desire for Stewart to take the title of the Earl of Ross (in addition to all the other titles and rights Stewart had at the time) from MacDonald. MacDonald does not want England, specifically the King or Stewart, to take the title and land from the MacDonald Clan and puts up quite a fight. This is where the part of the legend comes into play. According to lore, Stewart’s men knew the small village where the MacDonald clan would source fresh water. It is the strategic part of the tale. Instead of sending his men immediately to battle, Stewart orders the well to be laced with whisky, oatmeal, and honey (some also say cream). The hope was that adding oatmeal and honey to the well would mask the taste of whisky. While the MacDonald clan was asleep, a small group of spies, under the cloak of darkness, spiked the water source. As the men awoke and drank from the well, they were delighted to taste the brose (you see where I am going on this). The men passed the delicious porridge around and found themselves to be intoxicated. MacDonald sent the men, unknowingly drunk, to battle, and the results proved unfavorable for the clan. There are so many other variations of this story, including that it was just MacDonald who was drunk, the only man fighting. Whatever variation is accepted and regaled, the historical fact is MacDonald and Stewart's struggle for power came to a head in/about 1475 (the year of the spiked well). MacDonald forfeited the Earldom of Ross to Stewart, and eventually, after his death, so went the remaining title for the MacDonalds, the Lordship of Isles.
The original recipe for Atholl Brose is unknown, but the variations reflect the details of the legend; each clan had its story and recipe. Still, Atholl Brose is considered one of the first recorded whisky cocktails.
The traditional drink has been consumed since and is often served to visiting monarchs. King George IV was fond of the drink after his 1822 visit to Scotland. It was said that “during dinner, the King drank two glasses of Atholl brose, which had become his Majesty’s most common beverage at the table, and to which he declared himself partial." Twenty years later, the young Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, tasted the beverage during their visit to the grounds of Dunkeld Castle. It was said that the best honey was used to make their drink, but sadly it was more of a syrup than a drink.
Older recipes for Atholl Brose are more of a dessert than a drink. Modern-day, it is a delicious aromatic beverage often made up of whisky, heather, honey, cream, and oatmeal. The cousin to Atholl Brose is Carolans Irish Cream (1973) and Bailey's Irish Cream (1974), a blend of Irish Whisky, cream, and cocoa.
Making Atholl Brose is not difficult, but you need patience as this takes a few days. Let me assure you, it is worth it, especially if you want to make this into a trio of flavors. I choose the Scottish whiskey Drambuie as my base. Drambuie is a whisky with heather, herbs, and spices, enhancing my Atholl Brose's final flavors.
One of the steps of this recipe is seeping oats for two days in the Drambuie. Of course, toss the oats if your ultimate goal is to make the drink. However, you can turn the drunken oats into a cookie with just a few extra steps. AGAIN IT IS WORTH IT. The soft oatcake pairs beautifully with the beverages, and if you want to go one step further... turn some of the drink into a whip. I know this doesn't sound very easy, but it is not, and I will walk you through it.
Now let's make this little beauty, Drunken Oatcakes with a Tipsy Whip. Doesn't that look good?