Ola Dubh Ale aged in Highland Park 12 year old casks is reviewed by Craig Heap.
Ola Dubh Ale (12 year old Highland Park cask)
Whisky beer, be it beer with added whisky or beer matured in whisky casks, has always struck me as a waste of two good drinks. Then I tried Leeds Brewery’s Gyle 479 which blew me away. It also left me wondering if it was unique in its success, or if whisky and beer is indeed the way forward.
Step forward Ola Dubh Ale, for no good reason other than it was the first whisky beer I could find. The tag strung around the bottle neck (always the sign of a classy beer, but at £5 for a 330ml bottle from an off-licence, you expect these little perks) claims the name means ‘black oil’, so called because it is ‘gloopy and viscous’. The Ola Dubh Ale range is matured in Highland Park whisky casks. The beers range from being aged in barrels previously used to make the 12, 16 and 18 year old expressions of Highland Park. The one I have chosen is aged in the 12 year old cask.
(Highland Park 12 year old, incidentally, is reviewed here by our whisky tsar, Steve Crotty. In brief, it scored 9 out of 10, and is described as ‘a labyrinth of complexity… very near the top of the class’.) Highland Park is a heavyweight whisky brand, and Harviestoun have chosen well in a marketing sense. So does that rich whisky heritage help the beer any?
Black and viscous is true enough; it pours with an initial vigorous carbonation and rich, dark tan head that swiftly gives way. The smell is muted, with warm, malty tones, and homemade gingerbread biscuits. It’s not unlike a porter or stout, with its sweet liquorice and hint of dark cocoa chocolate profile lurking in the background. There’s also some soy sauce aroma in there. Maybe that’s how they make it so black and gloopy. Ultimately, it hides any alcoholic kick very well, and comes across as pleasing and robust, if not overly exciting.
It has a dense, velvety mouthfeel. As with the Gyle 479, for what should be a brooding, 8% ABV monster matured in hard-hitting whisky casks, this is surprisingly smooth, again with no kick to it. It’s exceedingly malty (though the sweetness is balanced by that umami/savoury profile detected on the nose), with a delicate whisky kiss on the back of the palate. The dry roasted, toasted, malts come through in the finish, with astringent liquorice and rich, dark dusty chocolate making an appearance. Beyond that, there’s the smoky, peated presence of Highland Park laying itself across the tongue.
If you savour it, and swill it round the mouth, as you really need to be doing with a beer of this type, you can sense a core of whisky wrapped in a ball of beer. There’s none of the harshness I somehow expect from whisky/beer hybrids. And yet, at the risk of seeming contradictory, I wanted that slight kick in the teeth. If you’re going to the trouble of maturing beer in whisky, surely the consumer should be taking more of that whisky profile home with them.
This is a very pleasant beer, and has helped change my views on this specific beer style, but it’s not one I would come back to. That said, if their 16 or 18 year old expressions had more of a whisky kick, it could earn a place in my heart. Like I said earlier, pleasing and robust, if not overly exciting, but at the equivalent of £10 a pint, it should do better.