Beer curious

The combination of whisky and beer is appreciated around the world, from the traditional ‘hauf’n’hauf’ in Scotland to the boilermaker in the United States. Gary Atkinson explored the history and synergy between the two drinks in this feature from Unfiltered issue 20 in July 2013

If you are a Glaswegian, or have lived anywhere on the west coast of Scotland, the term ‘hauf’n’hauf’ 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 the Borders and Highland Brewing Company in Orkney, although Williams Brothers in Alloa has 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 Tollbooth’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.”

Pictured: Coggans' Bar in the Saltmarket, now named the Tollbooth

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 a half gill; roughly 35ml, which is 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 a 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 aim is to appreciate a craft product. Good matching is 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.

*Job titles and information were correct as of time of writing in 2013