As dear Magnus chose to name himself on the Aleheads site after the Orkney Brewery’s SkullSplitter Wee Heavy/Scotch Ale, we thought it might be appropriate for all of us to try to dig up a bottle or three and do a group tasting note on this particular beverage. It seemed easiest to do this in Conundrum form so everyone could contribute their impressions, and so Beerford’s Conundra returns to the site this week thusly: Give us your tasting impressions of Orkney’s SkullSplitter.
This doesn’t have to be as detailed or elaborate as one of Barley or Doc’s tasting notes (as not all of us have educated our palates to quite such an extent), just give your general impressions of the brew.
LORD MASHTUN COPPERPOT
I will always think of Magnus when I crack open a Wee Heavy. He was proud of his Scottish heritage, and while he claimed to have loved the style, he was just the kind of person who would have said he loved it out of sheer loyalty to his ancestors, even if it wasn’t exactly his true, all-time favorite. He was that proud of his Alban roots. Come to think of it, he was probably royally pissed that Captain Lou Albano was a big, fat, Italian dude rather than a Scot. I would be.
I made a special trip to find SkullSplitter, and was thrilled when I finally came across it. As soon as the 4-pack made it home I opened one and gave a toast to Magnus. The caramel color, caramel flavor, and malty, peaty goodness wrap themselves around the brew in typical Wee Heavy fashion. While most of the usual strong flavors are present (again, think caramel…lots and lots of caramel), I was mildly turned off by the strong alcohol in the nose and taste. At 8.5%, it’s not the strongest beer in the world, and I’ve tasted many Wee Heavy brews that have incorporated the alcohol flavor better than what I found in the SkullSplitter. Mouthfeel was also a bit light for the style.
Altogether, I’d give the SkullSplitter 2.5 hops. Which is in stark contrast to Magnus Skullsplitter, who was a 4 hop Alehead if there ever was one.
Slainte, Magnus. Slainte.
COMMANDER PINT O. CHUG
Sir Magnus SkullSplitter taught me to love Scotch Ales. I hadn’t knowingly tried one until he turned me on to Oskar Blues’ Old Chub. I’ve since tried a dozen or more. And contrary to Copperpot’s suggestion above, I think Magnus truly loved these beers and didn’t just promote them for their Scottishness.
I’m not going to speculate on whether Magnus, imbued with the wisdom that comes with age and a stable full of beer blogger friends, would have liked SkullSplitter Orkney Ale now. He named himself after it having tried it years ago in Barley’s childhood home. It was an awesome name. In fact, it reminds me of the nickname we gave him in college, “Spud.” As most of our readers will recognize, “spud” is both a potato and a famous Scottish heroin addict. (Note: Magnus certainly did not use heroin.) It was an awesome nickname, but the reference to tubers and a drug addict was not exactly a compliment. Same for SkullSplitter.
Herr Direktor and I split a 4-pack of bottles that he graciously got for us at Whole Foods after we learned of Magnus’s death. The first half of the first beer was OK. It certainly is not a complex brew. It smells like straight British-style malt. It tastes similar: almost no hop profile, and very one-note. It’s pretty boozy for a Scotch Ale, even one with an ABV over 8%. It’s not quite full-bodied, but it’s rich relative to its peer beers.*
*Magnus hated when I revised my conundrum entry to take pot shots at subsequent entries on the post. He said it was “against the rules.” One of Magnus’s more amusing traits was that while he was not a particularly good rule follower, he was a prolific rule maker, and once he made a rule he would vociferously advocate for it, even if it made no sense (as was often the case). So hopefully without breaking Magnus’s stupid rule, I will only say I’m struck that this post has described the mouthfeel and body of SkullSplitter as anywhere from “light” to “medium-bodied brew that drinks a touch heavy” to “not quite full-bodied but rich relative to its peers.” Are we really drinking the same beer?**
**Editor’s Note: And I will break the rules even further by adding a revision to the Commander’s revision WITHIN his response. Magnus certainly would have approved of this…but only because it’s the Commander’s entry. As for the SkullSplitter’s mouthfeel, one look at the BeerAdvocate reviews for this brew will reveal just how quirky the “Mouthfeel” category can be. The beer is described as “very heavy” by one reviewer, “medium-bodied with medium carbonation” by another, and “much lighter than other Scotch Ales” by yet another. Personally, I found it to be pretty standard if slightly flat for a Scotch Ale, hence my “medium-bodied that drinks a touch heavy” comment. But if you’re not a regular Scotch Ale drinker, it might indeed drink full-bodied. On the flipside, if you’ve spent this Winter consuming Russian Imperial Stouts and Barleywines, the SkullSplitter probably drinks like Corona. It’s all relative, it’s all subjective, and that’s why Tasting Notes are A) Excellent argument starters, and B) Utter bullshit.
What makes this beer terrible instead of simply mediocre is that it’s not just one-note; it’s cloying. The malty sweetness quickly became irritating. The combination of sweetness and alcohol gave me a headache pretty quickly.
I didn’t feel like opening the second beer. Then again, I didn’t feel like doing much of anything in the days after Magnus’s unexpected passing. I soldiered on — Magnus would have wanted me to! — but I couldn’t make it past the halfway mark on the second beer.
I’m sorry, Magnus. You named yourself after a shitty beer. That’s not why I’m sorry, though. I’m sorry I wasted beer. You deserved better.
BROTHER BARLEY MCHOPS
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of enthusiasm for Magnus’s namesake brew thus far. The SkullSplitter is a divisive beer…with a disconcerting amount of peat and an ABV burn that, as Lord Copperpot notes, is far hotter than you would expect from a strong, but hardly ass-kicking brew. Nevertheless, I’m a fan of the beer…and not just because of its nostalgic connotations.
As Magnus noted in our Best Beer Memories Conundrum, one of his first true Aleheads’ experiences was on a trip to my ancestral home with Slouch Sixpack a little over a decade ago. The purpose of the trip was, ostensibly, for us to ransack the local package stores for brews we had never sampled before. At that time, my taste preferences were heavily tilted towards UK and Belgian beers…it wasn’t until the American craft beer explosion a few years later that my tastes shifted totally and irreversibly Stateside. As such, most of the brews we selected that weekend were from over-the-pond luminaries like Sam Smith’s, Young’s, Fullers, Lindemans, Rochefort, Orval, and Chimay. But we also took a few gambles…my least favorite from that session was a bottle of Scaldis (a beer, I should note, which is generally considered quite good). Magnus, being Magnus, immediately gravitated towards the most ridiculous bottle in the store. A foil-topped Wee Heavy with a label straight from a 1970’s men’s magazine. It featured quite possibly the foofiest Viking ever, looking wistfully off into the distance while wearing the least convincing period costume imaginable. If your four-year-old dressed up like a Viking for Halloween, he would look more authentic than the guy on the Skullsplitter label.
And if there was one thing Magnus appreciated more than his Scottish roots, it was absurdity. And the bottle of SkullSplitter was utterly absurd. So, of course, we purchased it.
Like the Commander and Lord Copperpot, my first taste of SkullSplitter was not memorable. I recall it being far peatier than any beer has a right to be…and the alcohol kick in the finish was more dryingly astringent than bracingly warming. That’s about all I remember (it was a long time ago), but because of that first impression, it would be years before I sampled the brew again. Upon revisiting the beer, my opinions changed quite dramatically. That peatiness that originally threw me for a loop seems to have subsided in recent vintages and while the ABV burn is still present, my bourbon-deadened taste-buds don’t really mind anymore. Now, I’ll grant you, it’s not a world-beater by any means. There are many superior Scotch Ales including American versions like the Founders Dirty and Backwoods Bastards, the aforementioned Oskar Blues Old Chub, Odell’s 90 Shilling Ale, and the outlandishly tasty Alesmith Wee Heavy. But while the SkullSplitter isn’t the best in class, it’s far above average and I’ve always found it to be a solid, if unspectacular Scotch Ale (for the record, Beer Advocate has it ranked #11 in the Scotch Ale style…I know those rankings are meaningless, but clearly at least SOME people are enjoying the brew).
I won’t bore you with one of my breathless tasting notes other than to say that the SkullSplitter’s nose is a nice balance of smokey peat, burnt sugar, and some fruity esters and the taste is a caramel sugar rush up front with a wash of peat-moss in the middle and a big, boozy finish. It’s a medium-bodied brew that drinks a touch heavy thanks to less than pervasive carbonation. Drinkability isn’t particularly high, but Wee Heavies rarely are. Like I said, it’s not the finest representation of the style, but it’s a solid enough beer and absolutely worth sampling for Scotch Ale lovers.
I’ll give the brew 3 Hops, though as Lord Copperpot notes, the beer utterly pales in comparison to the man. If you wanted to come up with a beer name that actually represented the quality of person that Magnus was, he probably would have been named Westy the Elder, Dark Lord of the Abyss. But that seems pompous…something Magnus never was. I just hope that wherever he is now, he’s standing in front of a beach, dressed in a cheaply made Viking costume, and looking off into the distance with a half-serious, half-whimsical expression on his face. Also, I hope he’s drunk.
DR. RIPPED VAN DRINKALE, III
Wow, I can’t believe how long it had been since I last had SkullSplitter. I’m guessing 8 years, but there’s a strong possibility that it was more like 10+ years. Here’s the notes I jotted down the other day, based on a very old memory – “Strong, peaty?, malty, pretty good for the style and awesome label”. See, I wanted to make sure that I wrote my vague memory down so I could compare it to a new tasting. Beer reviews are subjective enough, but add to that a beer that’s connected to a lost friend and you’ve got yourself into a weird little conundrum. I also knew that others had this beer more recently than I and their impressions were far from positive. I figured I owed it to Magnus to crack a new bottle and wash away the old tasting memory with a new one, so I picked up a single bottle and split it with The Baron this past weekend. Here’s what I came away with.
Strong? Yeah, I’d say it’s fairly strong but nothing crazy. I got a bit of booze on the nose that was laced in with plenty of toffee. I’d say the strength is appropriate for the style
Peaty? I didn’t find too much peat to be honest. When I think of really peaty Scotch Ales I think of Founder’s, and the SkullSplitter had nothing on anything from that brewery. I guess the peaty dryness was there, but there’s probably a reason I put the “?” on my quick tasting note from memory. Could use some more smoke.
Malty? Hell yeah. Super malty backbone
Pretty good for the style? I don’t think so. I want a strong combination of smoke and booze and the SkullSplitter simply didn’t provide enough of either (I know there was plenty of alcohol, but the cloying sweetness washed a lot of that away)
Cool Label? Let’s just pretend that they never changed the label and it still has that cool ass-kicking dude staring at you. I realize that nothing about the old label is actually “Cool” and it’s more cartoonish than anything, but I still like it.
In the end, I just didn’t like this brew. Something about the buttery finish just threw me off and killed anything that may have been worth savoring. It’s very light in body so it’s probably one of the most drinkable Scotch Ales you’ll ever come across, but I don’t think Scotch Ales really need to be all that easy-drinking in the first place. There’s nothing easy about being Scottish, so I want my Scotch Ales to be simple in their complexity, approachable yet off-putting, just a complete enigma that you can’t put your finger on. I’m pretty much looking for the Haggis of the beer world. I want a beer that 99% of people hate, 1% of people love but they’re not sure why, and no one on Earth simply “Likes”. Basically, I want the exact opposite of Magnus.
BARON SUDSY VON BRUE
It has an interesting label.
I was the namesake of a good man.
It wasn’t flat.
These are the nicest compliments I can faithfully bestow upon the SkullSplitter – one of the most abusively cloying bottles of suds I have had in many moons. As you know (are you really still reading?), Doc and I “split” a bottle over the weekend, which is to say that we poured the libation into two glasses, swallowed a third of the contents, and then agreed to throw the rest away. It was malty, indeed. Boozy? Sure. Smoke on the Locke Ness? Perhaps. I was far to distracted by the distinctly unsettling sensation that I was consuming Four Loko Uva Berry mixed with Moose Drool. The brew will remain great and beloved because of you, Magnus. But you deserved better. Sharing its name with you was a compliment this bottle should feel lucky to enjoy.
Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ‘cuz what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man – and I’m talkin’ about Magnus here– sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s Magnus. And even if he’s a lazy man– and Magnus was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest of all the Aleheads, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide – Sometimes there’s a man, a man gone from your life as suddenly as he appeared. And he left you with a bunch of responsibilities you have to carry out that you don’t want to, like being friends with Donnie, wishing success upon the Mets, and advocating the virtues of a frankly middling Scotch Ale called SkullSplitter. You don’t want to do these things, but he would do something similarly arbitrary and inane for you; so you do. Thus, I award Skull Splitter the rare and unknown 5 Hops score, and decree all Aleheads must consume one (1) and only one of these delicious brews annually in memory of our dearly departed brother. For those who only enjoy the first half of the bottle, feel free to pour out the other half on the sand below your feet, staring wistfully out to sea.