Drink: Getting in the seasonal spirit

Warm yourself on a winter holiday evening with smart new single malt whisky liqueurs. Photograph by Ross Kirkman
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Having long considered Harvey Nichols to be in the Bolly-and-Stoly belt, I was surprised to see the London store recently offering a tasting of a drink called Cock o'the North. Something to do with Harvey Nicks' expansion to Leeds, perhaps? No, it turns out that the drink is from Glasgow.

The virile title Cock o'the North was allegedly bestowed on the warrior chief of the Gordon clan in the 1500s. The present bearer, Lord Huntly, has given a twist to the Highland whisky-and-honey confections of old by launching this drink. It is a liqueur based on a single malt whisky, the fruity, creamy Drumguish, from one of Scotland's youngest distilleries - founded in the early 1990s, high on the river Spey.

The liqueur, at 35 per cent alcohol and a price tag of pounds 19.95 to pounds 22.50, is flavoured with bilberry (or, in Lowland Scots, blaeberry) and a third, "secret" ingredient. It has a bright golden colour and, to my nose and palate, an aroma of honey and fruit-cake and the flavour of ginger biscuits dunked in condensed milk. Cock o'the North is also available at Milroys, 3 Greek Street, London W1 (0171-437 9311).

Another newcomer, Glenfiddich Malt Whisky Liqueur, at 40 per cent (pounds 14.99, Sainsbury's and elsewhere), has the pear-like notes of Glenfiddich, and even the slight peatiness, but also suggestions of honey and brown sugar.

A third example, Wallace Single Malt Liqueur (pounds 13.99, Asda), has been in the market for a couple of years. It is based on the lightly nutty single malt from the Deanston distillery, at Doune, near Perth. That little-known distillery, dating from the 1960s, is in a former cotton mill designed by Richard Arkwright. Not too far away, at Stirling Bridge in 1297, the Scots under Sir William "Braveheart" Wallace defeated the English in a battle worthy of Hollywood. Wallace the drink, at 35 per cent, is nutty, remarkably flowery and delicate.

There is also a dryish nuttiness to balance a caramel flavour in Hebridean Whisky Liqueur (pounds 7.89, Tesco). The precise spirit is not specified, but there is none of the obvious seaweed associated with whiskies from the Hebrides. The rationale is that consumers are looking for less robust drinks; even the alcohol is held down to 20 per cent. Hebridean comes in the sort of slender bottle that normally accommodates grappa.

There is also an elegance to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-ish typography on the box and label for Stag's Breath, though perhaps not to the name. At a shy 19.8 per cent, this liqueur is based on a Speyside malt whisky and Highland honeycomb. It has a deep amber colour, a complex, full flavour, and a hint of lemon in the finish (pounds 10.95, Tesco).

All of these drinks seek to be more sophisticated in flavour and image than old standards like the perfumy, spicy Drambuie and the more honeyish Glayva (both pounds 14 to pounds 15). Neither of these claims to be based on a single malt. But Glayva in particular has been promoting itself with great success.

In bars, both are increasingly being offered on ice, in a brandy snifter, to drinkers who want something on the sweet side but less creamy than a Bailey's. Even for those who prefer cream liqueurs, Scotland has its own suggestions. Heather Cream, based on unidentified malts, not only tastes like condensed milk but looks like it (pounds 9.79, Safeway). It has, however, an oaky aroma and balance I do not remember in the Nestle's I spooned as a child. There is now even a cream version of Stone's Ginger Wine (pounds 9.99, Safeway). The original is really a liqueur, rather than a wine. I find only a late hint of ginger in Stone's Cream Liqueur, but could probably manage a glass with an after-dinner chocolate (and it does come in a sexy gift- tin).

Lovers of sweet confections usually enjoy Atholl Brose, a blend of whisky, honey, cream and oats, made at home or in restaurants, variously as a dessert or a drink. The malt whisky merchants Gordon and MacPhail market a clear, golden liqueur of the same name, with a distinctly heathery note (pounds 18.95, Thresher). Add it to your home- made version and you have a Double Atholl Brose. Then take a brisk walk in the Grampian Mountains