This week, we’re taking a look at a seasonal release from one of Florida’s best-known brewers, Cigar City Brewing, by checking out its Big Sound Scotch Ale.
Here is a beer whose flavors could fill a room, which is why it’s not surprising to see this 22-ounce bomber of Scotch ale adorned with a punk-styled bagpipe. The name is fairly tame as well; many beers of this type have increasingly intense Scots-forward monikers like Under the Kilt, Dirty Bastard, or Skull Splitter.
Scottish ales, and Scotch ales in particular, are a group of styles that focus heavily on malt complexity as their aim of flavor. The largest gravity beers, known as a "wee heavy," are “fermented at cooler temperatures than most ales, and with lower hopping rates, resulting in clean, intense malt flavors,” declares the Beer Judge Certification Program style guide. “Hops, which are not native to Scotland and formerly expensive to import, were kept to a minimum.”
Cigar City’s version of the Scotch ale is big in alcohol at 9.9 percent alcohol by volume.
"It's a traditional interpretation of a strong Scotch ale," Cigar City brewmaster Wayne Wambles tells me. "It's one of the busiest grists that we employ in our seasonal portfolio, but there is no smoked malt or peated malt. Traditional Scotch ales do not contain smoked malt.
"I first designed the recipe in the late ’90s, when I was working for Buckhead Brewery & Grill in Tallahassee, Florida. Back then, it had a small amount of smoked malt in it. The old Brewer's Association guidelines had not divided the Scotch ale category into two specific branches at this point, so all the entries went into one category. Now, there are two categories. One is for smoked Scotch ale, and the other is traditional, which contains no smoke."
Back in the day, it won the gold medal at the 2000 Great American Beer Festival in the Strong Scotch Ale category and also took home the silver medal that same year at the World Beer Cup in the Strong Ale category.
"One of the first pilot batches that we brewed back in 2008 was this beer, which we left the smoked malt in at the time. It was the first 110K+OT beer* and was called Der Rauch Gott. There were very few bottles released. I think that the bottles were only gifted. They were never for sale.
"Subsequent brews were produced without the smoked malt and became Big Sound Scotch Ale as we know it today. "
Indeed, this beer is continuing to win medals, having recently placed as Grand Champion in the 2016 Winter United States Beer Tasting Championships in the Scottish Ale category. Marshal Zhukov also placed as Grand Champion in the same competition but in the imperial stout category, making CCB the only brewery to take home two national medals in the competition this year.
It pours a deep inky brown that goes from super dark in the core to fringes of purple and garnet. Aromas are subdued when cool but get brought out more as it warms, bringing forth aromas of dark caramel and dark-brown sugar. Flavors move among earth, sweet, molasses, chocolate, and brightly sweet dark fudge and fold together with a slight bitterness at the end hinting toward a wood-like tannin. There is a heft to the mouthfeel, unsurprising from Cigar City's beers, which lends it a feeling of presence.
Available in 22-ounce bottles at most big beer retailers, the Big Sound Scotch Ale is a late winter release that will soon disappear from the shelves. Get it now, drink it now, or even cellar some away for next winter. With a high alcohol percentage, the potential for bottle aging is ripe.
* According to Beerpulse, 110k + OT is "based on a RateBeer thread (now nixed) about how much money people made. The user that started the thread claimed that he made $110k each year plus overtime. Apparently, quite of bit of “flaming” ensued."
Doug Fairall is a craft beer blogger who focuses on Florida beers. He is a Certified Beer Server and has been a homebrewer since 2009. For beer things in your Twitter feed, follow him @DougFairall and find the latest beer pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.