It has recently come to my attention that Mort is in search of the Holy Grail for Scotch Ale. Well look no further, here it is.
The real scoop on this subject is "Scotch Ale", authored by the world famous Greg Noonan . The book is an excellent primer on the subject, and has some good hints on breweries and pubs to visit in Scotland for those inclined toward more advanced research.
Smoke on the Water
Some home brewers are of the opinion that one of the primary attributes of a Scotch Ale is a smoky character. From a traditional point of view this may very well be so, as virtually all beers brewed 200 years ago undoubtedly has some smoke character to the malt, acquired during the kilning process. Contemporary commercial examples of the style do not exhibit smokiness as a primary characteristic. But a good brewer never lets a little reality interfere with their vision.
Frugal vs Fuggle
Hops are a foreign concept to the Scotsman, in a very literal sense. They are not grown in Scotland, and have to be imported from the South, at great expense no doubt. So the legendary frugality of the Scots comes in to play, even as the brew is formulated. The importance of stretching the hops to save a pound has some important consequences. The main one being that hop usage is restricted to bittering, and virtually not used for flavor or aroma. As to what variety of hops to use, it's not all that important, but the recipies will no doubt have some recommendations.
Malt covers the earth
Unlike the hop plant, barley is plentiful in the highlands, giving the malt center stage in brewing.
Is it the water?
Some of the character of malt whisky comes from the water, which has filtered through the peat bogs over periods of hundreds of years. As most of the brewing is done in metropolitan areas, it's unlikely that contemporary products have any of the peatiness of a traditional brew. You can make up for this by tossing in a handful of whisky malt into the mash. Be careful though, as a little goes a long way.
Any good top fermenting ale yeast will suffice. However, you may want to look for a strain which can handle a low fermentation temperature, has a high tolerance to alcohol, and good flocculation characteristics. A neutral character is appropriate in order to give the malt center stage. Again, the recipes have some specific recommendations.
There are some special processes for high gravity beers which can be applied. For example, the traditional Wee Heavy is brewed exclusinvely from the first runnings of the mash. A second, weaker beer, sometimes called two penny, is brewed from the subseuqent runnings. The second beer uses the spend hops from the Wee Heavy, as confirmation of the true dedication to frugality of the Scotsman.
If you don't want to make two beers from the same mash, you can make up for the difference by simply boiling the sweet wort for a while before adding the hops. This has the effect of increasing the gravity of the wort, and carmelizing it as well. The carmelization adds to the color, flavor, and increases the percentage of unfermentable sugars in the wort. Once again, this technique can be used to put the malt character center stage.
#141: Beam me up Scottie
#151: Scotch Ale
#167: Scotch Ale
#173: Scotch Ale
#191: Scotch Ale