If you are a Glaswegian, or have lived anywhere on the west coast of Scotland, the term “half and half” will have a particular resonance, conjuring images of old men in even older pubs, nursing their half-pint of beer and a dram of whisky. But, with the rise of high quality, craft produced whisky and beer, is it finally time for this old classic to brush off its dusty image and find a new lease of life among adventurous connoisseurs?
“Breweries such as BrewDog have opened the floodgates for craft beers in Scotland,” explains Steven Shand, Society whisky ambassador, member of the Campaign for Real Ale and avid homebrewer. “Among our craft breweries, you have the likes of Tempest Brewing Company in Kelso and Highland Brewing Company in Orkney. Although Williams Brothers have been around for a lot longer.”
With exciting flavours beyond your supermarket lagers – such as heather, Scots pine and gooseberry wheat ales – being brought back from the past, not to mention adopted from abroad, there has never been such an exciting selection to explore.
There is a solid basis for matching beer with whisky – after all they are essentially made of the same basic materials. There are, however, enough significant differences to keep the whole endeavour interesting. Beyond the obvious differences in alcoholic strength, beers often include hops and are influenced more by a far broader selection of malt and yeast. Whisky, of course, has its own influences, not least the effect of wood and time.
Legend has it that the half-and-half originated in the Tollbooth bar in Glasgow’s Saltmarket. The owner of the bar, which opened in 1892, noted an interesting practice among his poorer patrons – groups of men would buy a bowl of ale and a bottle of whisky to share. The enterprising Irishman then hit upon his great idea – to serve the ale and whisky in much smaller containers and together.
According to the Tollboth’s current manager, Jackie Hudson, it wasn’t originally a half pint that was on offer, but rather a ‘pony’ – a third of a pint. “It was cheaper and would get the customers, mainly Irish immigrants, in the door.”
Steven Shand adds: “Traditionally, the beer would have been a ‘wee heavy’, also known as a Scotch ale, while the whisky would probably have been sherried and a blend.”
While the beer or ale eventually grew to a half pint, the “half” of whisky is in fact a full single measure. This confusing situation once again has its roots in 19th century Glasgow, where spirits were measured by the 71ml “half gill”. When ordering a “half” of any particular spirit, one would receive half of half gill; roughly 35ml, which is also today’s standard single measure.
If that explanation seems a touch mundane, Michael Jackson, in his World Guide to Whisky, offers an alternative: “The Scot, appreciating that reality can be mean, feels that the term ‘half’ fairly describes a full single whisky.”
The practice of drinking a beer and a spirit as a “chaser” isn’t exclusive to Scotland though. You’ll likely still find some who partake in a lager and a jenever in the Netherlands, or a beer and a schnapps in Germany. And then you have the US with shot of bourbon and a beer chaser, or even a “boilermaker”; a shot glass of bourbon dropped into a beer glass.
While this may be a good way to supercharge the alcohol content in your drink, it is not recommended if your is to aim to appreciating the nuances of a craft product. Good matching not about “shooting” the spirit and using the beer to wash away the taste. It is about each bringing out the flavour of the other, sip by sip.
So, how do you go about matching whisky and beer? Many of the same principles of matching food and drink apply when combining the two drinks, according to Darren Blackburn, who runs the specialist beer bar The Vintage and who used to be a sommelier at the Witchery restaurant in Edinburgh.
“You have two options – matching similar flavours together, so a smoky whisky with a smoky beer, or going to contrasting flavours, such as a sharp citrus beer to cut through an oily rich sweet whisky. What you do will depend on the whisky and the beer, and your own palate,” he explained.
Armed with this knowledge, a selection of Society whiskies and some of the best craft beers on the market, Unfiltered assembled a crack team to find the perfect half-and-half match. The fruits of its labours will form the basis of special flights of matched beers and whiskies coming to a Society venue near you soon. Turn over to see how the team got on…
According to Darren Blackburn, craft beers today are a “backlash against faceless beers with no taste”.
“A lot of brewing that goes into craft beer at the moment is not new or avant garde though,” he continues. “It’s what we were doing 100 years ago. But somehow through economics and mass production, we lost what beer was about… When we put fresh hops into beer rather than hop extract, you are not doing anything new, you are just making proper beer.”
“The British, 200 years ago, made a lot of what we think of now as Belgian-style beers and then, through time, we lost that process and the Belgians took over. We started making pale ales and porters, stouts.
“Just look at a Belgian brewery such as La Chouffe. It has a beer called MacChouffe, which is a darker beer, with an Edinburgh millman in the front wearing tartan trousers. What the brewers were trying to capture was the Scottish essence of the Belgian-style beers. When the Belgians started making great beers they came across to Scotland and got the yeast from here.”
Tips for pairing beer with whisky
- Stay away from very hoppy beers such as IPAs. The dry bitterness is too overpowering and will mask the flavour of the whisky. That said, this rule was made to be broken if you find the right pair.
- Go for malty beers with a higher ABV (both go hand in hand). This will stand up to flavour of the whisky. So, typically dark beers will work well – heavies, porters and stouts, for example.
- Don’t rule out a whisky or a beer which you wouldn’t usually go for individually, because together they may just work a treat – such as a sour saison beer and a sweet smoky whisky.
- Sip the beer first followed by a sip of the whisky. You want to end with a big punch of flavour. As you keep drinking, you may notice the whisky predominantly changing the nature of the beer.
This piece is taken from our archive of Unfiltered content and was originally published in the issue released in July 2013. To read more content from Unfiltered, click here.