The Orkney Brewing “Skull Splitter”

August 10, 2011

It seems the farther one goes north into the United Kingdom the more things take on a mythic and romantic quality. The wide-open valleys filled with heather, the rugged sloping mountains and hills, the frigid lakes and lochs dotting the landscape… they all seem removed to an ancient time when the world was young and rule was enforced by fire and steel.

In other words, fans of Dungeons and Dragons would probably relocate there, en masse, if they weren’t still living in their parents’ basements.

I kid, but it’s seriously a beautiful corner of the globe. To this very day, Scotland remains largely an undiscovered country for those of us outside of Europe. Ask anyone what they know about the country and they’ll mention kilts, haggis, possible dinosaurs still living in the waters and hirsute red-headed men tossing telephone poles around for fun. Truth is there’s much more to Scotland than the stereotypes.

A quick read into the history of whisky will prove as entertaining as any French Revolutionary rebel’s derring-do. Smuggling, smoke signals, disguises and outright rebellions all helped shape “uisge beatha,” or water of life, into the smoky, complex beverage we all know today. Smoldering peat moss is used to dry out the malted grain prior to distillation and gives whisky its distinctive campfire quality. A hearty beverage for a rather chilly country. Why not use the same approach to making ale?

Since the Neolithic the Orkney Islands off the extreme northern coast of Scotland have been inhabited by the Picts, Normans, Romans and Vikings. It’s the infamous sea-faring raiders where Skull Splitter Ale derives its name. Like whisky, the grain is gently smoked over peat moss and then boiled in the wort for an extra amount of time to produce intense malty ale known as Scotch ale or wee heavy. It’s a style of beer designed for colder climates but jazzes the palate any time of the year.

By boiling the wort longer than most ale, the malt takes on a darker, richer and sweeter tone with very little hop bitterness. Skull Splitter is dark brown with ruby highlights around the edges and sports a nice tan-to-orange head that disappears fairly quick as there is very little hop oil to aid retention. To say this ale smells terrific is an understatement. Big scents of fig, dried cherry, rich caramel, toasted nuts and sherry punch you in the nose like a Berserker on steroids. This ale sports amazing flavors of butter toffee, ginger bread, raisin, molasses and biscuit all tied together by the wonderful peat smoke. It’s not as slippery-textured as I would’ve thought for such a rich ale. The modest carbonation and massive malt quality make it perfect for roast meats and strong cheese.

Exercise caution around this one… with an ample 8.5%abv this bad boy can easily split your wig.