IPA and Pale Ale beer styles are wildly popular in the South for the same reason they were popular in India – they go down well when it’s hot. Even on America’s humid back porch, however, winter will eventually set in. There won’t be enough snow to move the needle for born and bred Midwesterner or a Yankee, but if you’ve ever stalked deer in the drizzling rain you know that for our sunny summers, Southern winters can be cold, wet and miserable.
Which just might explain a curious tendency among Southerners around the end of November through the holidays when the autumnal colors still cling to the trees and the shivering damp sets in: We pretend to be Scottish, plaid and tweed are everywhere. If you are at winter wedding in the South – even if the bride has a suspiciously German name – chances are better than even you’ll hear bagpipes.
I’m a Teutonic Frank with a side of English, but even for me it’s hard not to get sucked in. An entire population growing a kilt in at Christmas is not complete fantasy: if you look in any phone book in the South, save Louisiana and Florida, you will find that they are crazy with Mc’s and Mac’s and Fitz-somethings. Their traditional Celtic music became our Country and Bluegrass. My wife and her ethereal strawberry blonde hair are descended from those magnificent scofflaws.
If you are having a holiday feast, serving up that venison for which you spent hours in the rain trying to get a clean shot, you could do worse than to pair it with a toasty Scotch Ale. It stands up to game without trying to overpower it, and the same goes for duck, and those holiday cheeses that come in wax paper and cost the same as a mid-level cable television package. Since every one at the table will be dressed like the wastrel younger child of some minor Highland Laird, it’ll set the scene perfectly. A good single malt whiskey never hurts either (well, it can…).
The truth is that for the deep association of Scotland with whiskey, Scots have a deeper history with their traditional ale. Even the Union Act of 1707 – unifying the governments of Scotland and England – didn’t change much. Then, in 1725, London imposed a fearsome tax on Scottish malt. The resulting riots destroyed the home of Glasgow’s Member of Parliament, but the tax stayed. Breweries are large buildings that are very hard to move once spotted by the tax agent. Unable to hide, Brewers were forced to raise their prices. Distillers, on the other hand, skedaddled to the inaccessible Highlands, where farmers learned you could conceal a still behind a cow if you were clever about it. Of course this made malt whiskey cheap as well as a symbol of resistance to the English.
That is more than you probably want to get into at dinner, certainly with some all-American mutt like myself. Still, a damn good Scotch Ale is a perfect winter craft beer in the South – just as IPAs were brewed for the Indian heat, these are made with cold, wet misery in mind. They weren’t exporting that stuff anywhere; it was needed on the home front.
The Southerner’s Caledonian holiday fetish makes less sense, however. True, after a few nips, kilts are awesome, but that’s not the point. Back in the old country, the Scots are generally known as somewhat grumpy Presbyterians who don’t really go in for Christmas because: a) it requires spending money, and b) it smacks of what they still call (and I’m not making this up) “Popery.” Two little syllables that mean, more or less, “If the Catholics dig on it, it must be bad.”
The holidays aren’t about historical grievances, but pleasant, agreed upon inaccuracies. Silly, perhaps, but with friends around the table and a full glass, who cares?