Although not as well known as Belgian beers, Scottish ales are making somewhat of a resurgence on the American craft beer scene.
Whether it’s the influence of the Scottish ex-pat community or craft beer fans who want a more malty style of beer with fewer hops, there are now many examples of Scottish ales available in the US. Many of our favorite craft breweries even brew their own Scottish ales.
Scotland may only harbor one-tenth of the population of its nearest neighbor, England, but Scottish brewing traditions go back centuries.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Scottish brewers were active in exporting their beer all around the globe and were even the first country in the British Isles to begin mass production of beer. As well, they were the first British brewers to make lagers.
While it can be relatively easy to find a stronger Scottish Ale, i.e., the Wee Heavys or Scotch Ales you see in many bars, finding one of the lighter shilling styles of ales can be more difficult here in the US.
Let’s take a look a the different styles of Scottish ales before listing the 10 best Scottish ale beers you can find in the US today, both Scottish-brewed and American-produced.
You’ll be surprised to even find one of those Belgian beers in our top 10 masquerading as a Scottish ale!
What Is a Scottish Ale?
Over the centuries, the geographical climate and political conditions of Scotland have had more influence on the style of Scottish ale than the will of the Scottish brewers.
Scotland has been and still is a largely agricultural country with over three-quarters of the land still being farmed. Barley remains the major crop and is better known in the Northern Highlands for its use in the worldwide famous malt whiskies, which are exported globally.
However, in the south, the barley produced is better suited to the brewing of beer and has been readily available to Scottish brewers throughout their history.
By comparison, Scotland’s harsh climate proved inhospitable to the cultivation of hops, with Scottish brewers having to find other bittering and aroma agents, including botanicals like heather, ginger, pepper, and other aromatic spices.
Combined with the political union of 1707 between England and Scotland, which excluded Scotland from a substantial malt excise tax, Scottish brewers tended to focus on more malt-oriented ales, a tradition that has been carried forward to modern-day brews.
The four styles of Scottish ales that are most widely recognized today can be split into two distinct categories: Scottish ale and Scotch Ale.
What’s the Difference Between a Scotch Ale and a Scottish Ale?
There’s often confusion between a Scotch Ale and a Scottish Ale, which is understandable considering they share similar names. They also have a similar sweet and malty flavor profile, but the main difference will be in the ABV.
Scottish ales have their own BJCP category (Cat 14) and can be further split into three styles, Scottish Light, Scottish heavy, and Scottish Export.
The ABV will normally range from about 3% – 6% and they are often labeled as shilling beers according to the price of a barrel in the 19th century. Light Scottish ales are referred to as 60/- shilling, heavy Scottish ales are known as 70/- shilling, and Export Ale as 80/- shilling.
The strongest of Scottish beers come under the style of Scotch Ale or Wee Heavy and can be found in the BJCP category 17 – Strong British Ales. With a higher ABV, Scotch ales normally pack more of a sweet malty punch than your traditional Scottish shilling ales.
The history of Scotch ale can be traced back to the 13th Century when Scotland was allied with France in a war against their southern neighbors, the English.
The French were the first nation outside of Scotland to fall in love with Scotch ale as an exciting alternative to wine. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century when Scotch ale became a major export of Edinburgh that it reached a much wider following worldwide, particularly in the US.
American-brewed Scotch ales don’t vary too much from the traditional style, although the use of American hops can be stronger in taste than the British varieties that are used sparingly in the beer.
Other additions by US brewers like smoked peat or peated malt will often give a more whiskey-like taste to an American Scotch ale.
The Top 10 Scottish Ales and Scotch Ales Available in the US
Deuchars IPA by Caledonian Brewery Company, Edinburgh, SCOTLAND
- ABV 4.4%
Although Deuchars IPA doesn’t really fit into any of the traditional Scottish ale styles of the shillings, with an ABV of 4.4%, it would probably be closest to an 80/- beer.
Many would argue it’s actually more of an English IPA-style beer – just don’t tell that to a Scottish man, or you may receive what’s commonly known as a Glasgow kiss, a sharp butt to the head!
First created in 1991, Deuchars IPA was named after the entrepreneur who acquired the Caledonian brewery in the 1890s, Robert Deuchar. The beer is brewed using Pale Optic and Golden Promise malts which are topped with brewing sugar.
Wort is boiled in the brewery’s magnificent traditional copper kettles with whole flower hops of Fuggle and Aurora hops added early in the boil. Later additions include Savinjski Goldings, and more Aurora and Williamette hops.
The result is an ale that has a floral and citrussy hop aroma yet a strange underlying malt, which some have described as being reminiscent of marmite on toast.
This medium-body beer has more of a malt flavor than most American IPAs, as you would expect from a Scottish ale, but with a moderately bitter pine and citrus hop taste.
If this is your first taste of Scottish ale, you will be pleasantly surprised with the resemblance it pays to our beloved IPAs but with distinctively Scottish flavors.
It’s certainly my favorite session beer from Scotland and is now widely available in the US due to a distribution deal with Heineken!
Robert the Bruce by Three Floyds Brewing Company
- ABV 7.5%
Brewed here in the US in Indiana by Three Floyds Brewing, Robert the Bruce is a bold Scottish Ale with an ABV of 7.5%, putting it firmly in the Wee Heavy category. A complex malty body comes from the use of roasted and crystal malts balanced with just the right amount of hops.
A deep ruby color, this strong ale has a sweet malty nose, with layers of roasted malts and caramel coming through. Though some malt and caramel notes carry through to the flavor too, the caramel doesn’t overtake the beer as it can in other Scotch ales.
Most craft beer experts agree that this beer from 3 Floyds is probably the best example of a Scotch ale we produce in the US, and I’m tempted to agree; it’s certainly a great winter warmer with the alcoholic spice it provides.
Old Chub Scotch Ale by Oskar Blues Brewery
- ABV 8%
Another fine example of a Wee Heavy Scotch Ale from the US is this Colorado-produced ale, which has a wee bit of gentle smoke added to it for extra flavor.
Using copious amounts of malted barley and specialty grains, a dash of beechwood-smoked malt is also in the mix. The resulting flavor is light with a malt sweetness and semi-sweet flavors of coffee and cocoa, a hop finish, and just a hint of smokiness.
At 8% ABV, it’s a powerful head-turning beer for the malt heads amongst us with the chewy malts, toffee, and caramel flavors, making it an ideal fireside beer for that colder weather of the winter nights.
Belhaven Scottish Ale by Belhaven Brewery, Edinburgh, SCOTLAND
- ABV 5.2%
Established in 1719, Belhaven Brewery is the oldest working brewery in Scotland. They were also one of the first Scottish breweries to export their ales globally, including to the US.
Many of their beers, such as the flagship beer Belhaven 80/-, are still officially only produced for the UK. However, they also brew beers like this Scottish Ale for the Export market.
At 5.2% ABV, it sits just at the end of the Export or 80/- style of Scottish ales, and can often be found on keg in many craft ale bars or Scottish-themed pubs.
With a deep copper color, this sessionable ale uses only the best quality Scottish barley malts for a biscuity malt character. The crystal malt used in the brewing adds toffee and caramel tastes while a black malt adds an astringent balance.
Hops are used sparingly, Challenger and Goldings, to add a fresh herbal and resin aroma and a lingering slight bitterness to balance the sweet malt character.
Although still brewed in Scotland and with that distinct malt backbone, the addition of spicy hops shows this is a beer that has definitely been brewed for the Export market and to cater more to our American tastebuds.
Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA by Belhaven Brewery, Edinburgh, SCOTLAND
- ABV 5.6%
Officially anything brewed in Scotland could be classed as a Scottish ale, but Belhaven actually describes this as their flagship American-style IPA. However, I’m still counting it as a “Scottish” ale because it comes from Edinburgh.
Using American hops like Challenger for the bitterness and Cascade for a refreshing pink grapefruit and floral note, Belhaven also adds the Hersbrucker hop for even more floral notes and a touch of spiciness and fruity hop profile.
Although it still has that biscuity malt found in most Scottish ales, it has a much bigger bitterness and a paler blonde color than similar Scottish ales at this strength.
Available for export to the US, the Twisted Thistle IPA has also found fans amongst the craft beer lovers of its native Scotland. There’s hope for those malt heads yet!
McChouff by Brasserie d’Achouffe, BELGIUM
- ABV 8%
You probably weren’t expecting to see a Belgian beer on this list, but we have already featured American “Scotch” ales, so why not one from Belgium?
Inspired by the Wee heavy beers of Scotland, this Belgian dark beer retains many of its Belgian qualities too with the use of specialty Belgian strains of yeast.
Those yeasts lend a spicy aniseed and licorice flavor to the beer, which is complemented by full-bodied caramel notes.
A deep ruby color and fine creamy head are more reminiscent of the Belgian style than the Scotch ale, but that maltiness is still there to remind you of the origins of this beer.
Although it’s surprisingly smooth, it’s a robust beer too with fruity notes, especially of pear, and a slight hint of bitterness at the finish.
If you are a fan of the blonde La Chouffe beer, you will probably appreciate the Mc Chouffee, which can be enjoyed with the same lightness as its older sibling beer.
Backwoods Bastard by Founders Brewing Company
- ABV 10.2%
if you’re looking for an ale that is more than a “wee” bit heavy, this bourbon barrel-aged beer from Founders could be considered the Mickle Heavy.
At 10.2% alcohol by volume, this ale has a gigantic flavor, almost like a Scotch ale and barley wine rolled into one. Aged over oak, expect aromas of single malt scotch, oaky bourbon barrels, smoke, sweet caramel, and roasted malts.
The flavor profile is one of earthy spice with a touch of dark fruits balanced with those roasted malt flavors. It’s almost like a perfect glass of a single-malt Scotch.
This is definitely a beer that will keep you warm on those darker winter nights. If you are lucky enough to be in the Detroit area, you will even find it available on draught.
Brewers Reserve Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale by Central Water’s Brewing Company
- ABV 12%
This barrel-aged Scotch ale is another high-ABV beer and hails from Central Waters which is renowned for its phenomenal barrel-aging program.
Rich and malty like a Wee Heavy should be, this ale uses caramel, chocolate, and smoked malts with a bourbon barrel complexity from the aging process.
The first sip is overwhelmingly the Kentucky taste of the bourbon barrel and smoked malt, but as the flavor develops, you taste plenty of sweet caramel and chocolate all the way to the finish. It’s surprisingly soft and smooth, and one of the better cold-weather beers.
Innis & Gunn – The Original by Innis & Gunn Brewery, Edinburgh, SCOTLAND
- ABV 6.6%
I haven’t forgotten that Scotland also brews some great beers, but it can be hard to track them down this side of the Atlantic. A relatively new brewery in Scotland, The Original was Innis & Gunn’s very first beer and the one which launched their whole brewing adventure.
Specializing in cask matured beers (they also do a Caribbean rum barrel-aged and an Irish whiskey barrel-aged ale), the original flagship beer uses a single-malt scotch whiskey barrel to mature the Scottish ale.
A honey-hued malty and golden Scottish ale is carefully matured in the single malt whiskey casks to give the beer an incredible smoothness and added depth of flavors, including hints of toffee undertones, caramel, and oak.
This beer overflows with the taste of vanilla and toffee with the richness balanced by hints of citrusy orange marmalade and that ever-so-subtle oak with a gentle, lingering bitterness to the finish.
Skull Splitter by The Orkney Brewery, Stromness, SCOTLAND
- ABV 8.5%
Our final Scottish Scotch Ale comes from northern Scotland, the Orkney Islands. With their fertile farming lands and fishing grounds, the tranquil Orkney Islands have been inhabited for over 5000 years.
The brewhouse at The Orkney Brewery is born from history and tradition using only the best malts, hops, and yeasts, with the purest of Orcadian waters.
Skull Splitter is one of The Orkney Brewery’s strongest beers at 8.5% ABV and is firmly in the Scotch ale category. However, on pouring this strong deep ruby colored ale, you’ll be surprised to find it has an aroma reminiscent of Cherry Coke.
Like most contemporary fruit-infused beers, however, don’t be fooled by that sweet aroma; this beer packs a punch.
It’s definitely one of the fruitiest beers we have looked at, but the alcohol isn’t hidden but is just muted a little by the sweeter, brighter flavors.
A rich fruity wine-like complexity offers flavors of both fresh and dried fruit along with warm exotic spice and mellow fruity notes.
Unlike many of the Scotch ales we have looked at that use barley, the main grain in this brew is malted wheat, along with pale and crystal malts.
Best Scottish Ale Final Thoughts
Although we have only looked at our favorite 10 beloved beers from Scotland, hopefully, it gives you some idea of the range of beers that are available in Scotland.
Here in the US, importers tend to prioritize the Scotch Ale style of beer as it has a little more hops than the balanced caramel-forward beers of the lighter shilling styles.
We have also included a number of American-produced Scottish ales as, to be quite honest, finding many of their Scottish counterparts on our shores can be quite difficult.
If you should ever get a chance to visit Scotland, don’t just stop by the distilleries; there are many breweries that now have tap rooms or full brewery tours available. There are also many local Scottish pubs where you can cozy up by the fireside with a pint of your favorite beer!