Monday Morning Review: BridgePort Highland Ambush

Long ago I drank a bottle of BridgePort Highland Ambush and have been long remiss in reviewing it. This is not entirely due to circumstances. Highland Ambush, as its name suggests, is a Scottish ale, in this case a bourbon-barrel-aged wee heavy. Here's the thing about wee heavies; I've found they come in three general categories. The first are failures, brewed too warm or with the wrong malt and are heavy, treacly, and worty. The second are warming and malty, a fine tipple but nothing much to get you dancing around the room. The final are sublime--dense, rich, and creamy, with complexities that draw out smoke and nut, dark fruit and caramel. In this latter camp are very few--most are in the middle camp.

Highland Ambush was first brewed in the 1980s, an homage to the heritage of then pub manager (and now famous whiskey guide) Stuart Ramsay--who, I can use this opportunity to mention, just started a blog. This year's reprise was a blend of two batches, the second aged in Maker's Mark barrels. (The label says 2/3s to 1/3, but on this Brewpublic video Jeff Edgerton says it was really 50/50.) The result is, I'm afraid to report, a second-camp wee heavy, albeit one with more character than most.

Aging a Scottish ale in bourbon barrels poses an additional challenge--you combine a sweet beer with a sweet whiskey. I won't call Highland Ambush cloying--actually, it's pretty impressive how dry it is, considering--but it's a sweet beer. There is a bit of peaty smokiness to add dimension, but you also get a pronounced vanilla note. It's interesting, that note actually has a bit of banana in it, and I'd love someone to tell me where it comes from (is it the same isoamyl acetate ester you find in hefeweizens?).

The line that separates the good from the great wee heavy may be past the ken of adjectives. It's more one of those "know-it-when-you-taste-it" things. There's something in the balance and complexity that makes a great one pop. Although Oregonians should like Scottish ales, given our somewhat similar climate, we don't. They resist our hop lust. When I try to foist a Scottish on an unsuspecting Beervanian, I am usually greeted with impatience. Life is too short to drink underhopped ale. I have had luck with Skull Splitter (though it may have been the name) and Traquair House, but few others. I fear Highland Ambush would leave them similarly unimpressed.

Be that as it may, Karl Ockert tells me it's selling well, which is good. I'm always pleased to hear a beer is selling well. Maybe it's sample bias--I know too damn many hopheads. That would explain a lot, actually.

Malts: Pale and Carmel Malts
Hops: (Few, but...) Kent Goldings
ABV: 6.8%
IBU: 40
Availability: Through the spring
Rating: B-