By Joseph V Micallef
Robert Burns (1759-1796), is Scotland’s National Bard. He was a poet and lyricist who wrote in both Scottish and English, and remains to this day a Scottish cultural icon and a bedrock of Scotland’s national identity. Among his many compositions are Auld Lange Syne, A Red, Red Rose, Tam O’ Shanter and, of course, Address to a Haggis.
Five years after his death, a group of his devoted friends gathered together to celebrate his life and work. The tradition caught on and came to be celebrated on or around his birthday of January 25. That date, often referred to as Robert Burns Day, has become Scotland’s unofficial National Day. In fact, it’s more widely celebrated in Scotland than the official national observance of St Andrew’s Day.
The traditional Burns Supper begins with a soup course. This is usually a classic Scottish soup like Scotch broth, potato soup, Cullen skink (a thick Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions) or cock-a-leekie (a soup dish consisting of leeks and peppered chicken stock).
The highlight of the dinner is the serving of the haggis; a traditional Scottish pudding comprised of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep diced with onions, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt, which has been cooked in a sheep’s stomach.
Tradition has it that the dinner party stands when the haggis is brought in by the cook while a bagpiper “pipes” the haggis to the host. A distinguished guest or the host then recites Burns’ poem Address to a Haggis. When the recital has finished, a whisky toast is proposed, the first of many that will grace the evening.
Following coffee, the guests raise toasts to the memory of Burns, often accompanied by recitals of his poems. Traditionally the evening ended when a male guest gave an “Address to the Lassies,” ostensibly this was to thank and toast the women present for preparing the meal, but was often used as an opportunity for the speaker to give his views on women.
That toast was followed by a “Toast to the Laddies,” an opportunity for a female guest to give her views on men and to respond to any of the specific points raised by the previous speaker. The evening would end with additional recitations of Burns’ poems and songs culminating in a group singing of Auld Lange Syne.
I can appreciate that you would just as soon skip the haggis. Understandable, it’s definitely an acquired taste. Moreover, these days the “Address to the Lassies” and the “Address to the Laddies” might run afoul of political correctness. So, best we just skip straight to the whiskies!
What whiskies should you drink on Burn’s Night? Any Scotch whisky will do, although if you want to be historically accurate then look to single malt, cask strength offerings, ideally ones that were Sherry cask matured and that included some peated malt in their mash bills.
Neither blended whisky nor vatted malts existed in 1796. Blended whisky wasn’t legalized till Gladstone’s Spirits Act of 1865. For that matter, outside of a few Lowland Distilleries, most of which would have been undrinkable anyway, virtually all of the single malt whisky in Scotland would have been bootleg. It wasn’t until the enactment of the Excise Tax in 1823 that widespread legal Scotch whisky production was born.
Scotch was bottled at cask strength until WW I. The British government reduced the bottling proof to 40% ABV/80 proof to reduce drunkenness among munitions workers following their lunch or dinner breaks.
There aren’t a lot of options that meet all three criteria, but several do and there are a few more that come close.
Consider Aberlour A’bunadh. This whisky isn’t peated but it is bottled at cask strength, usually around 60% ABV, plus or minus, and is matured entirely in a Sherry cask. It’s a style of Scotch whisky that 19th century participants in a Burn’s Supper would find quite familiar.
The Macallan Cask Strength expression is also a good choice. It also is Sherry cask matured, and is unpeated. It has been discontinued by the distillery, however, and is difficult to find.
The Macallan Rare Cask Black is a slightly peated Macallan. It is Sherry cask matured, and offers the classic Macallan profile with a subtle smoky flavor. The Macallan Black is a throwback to the style of Macallan in the first half of the 20th century. The expression is exclusive to travel retail, so if you have the opportunity look for it in duty free stores.
Signatory has a cask strength, Sherry matured Glenlivet. This expression is unpeated. A classic choice is the Glen Scotia Victoriana. This is a slightly peated, cask strength expression, 30% of which is finished in Pedro Ximenez (PX) Sherry casks. PX Sherry is produced from slightly raisinated grapes, and imparts strong flavors of raisin and dried fig. It’s intended to showcase the style of Scotch whisky during Queen Victoria’s reign.
Benriach has a cask strength peated expression that is also reminiscent of a historic Speyside whisky style. There is also the Benriach Smoky 12. It’s bottled at 46%, and is finished in a combination of Sherry and Marsala casks.
Benromach has a cask strength expression that is slightly peated and, a portion of which, receives maturation in Sherry casks. This is also reminiscent of a classic Speyside whisky style from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century.
Other possibilities include the Laphroaig Cask Strength 10 YO, a classic heavily peated Islay whisky that has graced many Burn’s Dinner tables. The Ben Nevis 10 YO cask strength has a similar pedigree. The Glengoyne Cask Strength is another popular choice among lowland Scotch whiskies. Both the Ben Nevis and Glengoyne are slightly peated, and both cask strength expressions get some Sherry cask maturation.
Want to delve more into the lore of Burns Night? The Whisky Exchange, the world’s largest online retailer of Scotch whisky, plans to keep whisky lovers entertained this Burn’s Night with an interactive virtual whisky quiz using Speed Quizzing software, to be held on Zoom at 6:30 pm GMT on January 25.
Hosted by resident whisky whiz and Whisky Exchange ambassador, Billy Abbott, and all round-spirits buff and head buyer at The Whisky Exchange, Dawn Davies MW. Prizes include Whisky Show tickets (worth around $300), special bottlings and a Robert Burns Gift Pack donated by the Arran distillery.
The quiz is free and open to everyone, but players will need to register in advance to attend the event. Participation is limited to the first 250 signups. You can find the registration link at The Whisky Exchange website