There’s a special little holiday tucked into the depths of winter that’s just for Scotch whisky drinkers: Burns Night.
On January 25, we celebrate the birthday of the great Scottish poet, Robert “Rabbie” Burns, the Bard of Ayrshire. Burns is Scotland’s national poet, a voice for common humanity who is revered wherever the tartan is worn. But whisky drinkers claim him as their own, with poems like “Scotch Drink,” “A Bottle and Friend,” “John Barleycorn,” and, my favorite, “The Devil’s Away Wi’ The Exciseman.”
On Burns Night, it is traditional to serve haggis (a poached sheep’s stomach stuffed with oats, onions, and offal), wreathed with “tatties and neaps” (potatoes and turnips) and praised with Burns’ “Address to a Haggis.” While those elements are necessary, the whole shebang truly runs on whisky.
Friends of ours host a Burns Night dinner every year, and while the children pluck sweets from the table, and the dog follows them hopefully, the adults cluster around the bar. We all bring a bottle or two (whiskey writers are, naturally, expected to bring at least three), and once we’ve sipped and toasted the Bard, the music starts. That’s when the Scotch truly starts to flow. It’s a grand time.
If you’re planning a Burns Night dinner this year, good on you! You’ve likely got your menu planned already, but if you haven’t been to the liquor store yet, we’d like to make a few suggestions. Slainte!
Compass Box, the brainchild of John Glaser, has two blended malts that you should consider drinking. The first is the Story of the Spaniard ($65), which includes whiskies aged in used sherry casks and whiskies aged in Spanish red wine casks. The finished blend offers notes of pears poached in red wine and spices, with a long finish featuring vanilla and berries.
The second from Compass Box is the return of an old friend, Flaming Heart. This is the sixth time in 12 years the company has released a batch of the big, brawny blended malt that combines Islay peat smokiness with the rich, sweet spice of heavily toasted French oak. This edition includes some sherry cask-aged whisky, which adds complexly layered fruit. The suggested retail price is $150, but if you really want to celebrate the life of Robert Burns, there are a limited number of 1.75 liter magnum bottles at $330.
I do love me some Aberlour A’Bunadh, and was excited to hear about a new Aberlour expression. Casg Annamh ($65), which means Rare Cask in Gaelic, is aged in not one, not two but three different types of barrels. To create the whisky, Aberlour blends single malt aged in Oloroso sherry casks with whisky aged in both American ex-bourbon casks and larger so-called hogsheads. Why bother? The “hoggies” have less surface area in contact with the whisky, which means less flavor from the wood, while the combination of Oloroso and bourbon casks yield a vanilla-edged heart of dried fruit and oak spice.
Glenrothes established its reputation on vintage whisky releases. The brand is now transitioning to a more standard age-based lineup, but, trust me, you’ll want to give their new range a try. There are five new expressions, including a 10-year-old ($45), a 12-year-old ($55), an 18-year-old ($130), and a stately 25-year-old ($500). There’s also the Whisky Maker’s Cut ($75), a non-age statement malt, which is made to Glenrothes’ master blender Gordon Motion’s personal tastes and is bottled at nearly 100-proof. Plenty of good choices here.
While single malts always have pride of place, and everyone’s familiar with traditional blends, you may not be as familiar with the softer, sweeter Scotch grain whisky. Pick up the Tweeddale Grain of Truth ($50), which is new to the American market. It is distilled from a mash of half wheat and half malt, and aged in former bourbon barrels before finishing for nine months in Oloroso sherry hogsheads. The result is a light, fruity dram that’s a great starter for the evening.
Finally, look out for this truly appropriate Burns Night whisky: Douglas Laing’s Timorous Beastie, which is named from a line in Burns’ well-loved poem, “To a Mouse.”
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie. O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
A wee dram of this blended malt will calm the panic in any breastie. It’s not new (though there is a 10-year-old version that was just released, which will hopefully reach U.S. stores in time for Burns Night), but it is a wonderfully soft and smooth mix of Highland malts. Sweetness combined with a streak of bitter orange peel from start to finish, peppered with oak spice and a hint of cinnamon. (The standard bottle goes for $70.)
No matter what you drink, may your Burns Night be warmed by whisky and comradeship, with many a toast to The Plowman’s Poet, Rabbie Burns!