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Burns Night: What to eat and drink to celebrate Scotland’s greatest poet

Burns Night: What to eat and drink to celebrate Scotland’s greatest poet

In the dark of January, the birthday of Scottish poet Rabbie Burns is the crack that lets the light in. A night of warming food and fiery whisky – and yes, a few words – January 25 is still celebrated across the world.

Its global appeal is not such a surprise. Burns’ work has travelled extraordinary distances, far beyond the boundaries of dialect. The Soviet Union printed stamps in his image, Steinbeck used his line to title Of Mice and Men and Michael Jackson supposedly came up with Thriller after reading Tam o’ Shanter. In Japan, pedestrians still cross the street to the jingle of Comin' Thro' the Rye, and back in 2010, a miniature collection of his work orbited the earth 217 times; Burns travelled more than 5.7 million miles.

Here on earth, celebrations are as familiar as Auld Lang Syne (a Burns composition) on New Year’s Eve: all that’s needed is a little food, poetry, whisky and – if the whisky’s done its job – dancing. There may not be any great feasts this year, but there are still plenty of ways to toast the Scottish great.

Raise a glass

 (Pixabay)
(Pixabay)

Like most who, over the years, may have too keenly taken up Scotch as a hobby, Rabbie Burns knew there were two sides to every coin. Was it too much, taken too quickly, that saw him declare whisky his muse in Scotch Drink? His wife can’t have been too thrilled. He had praise for the bravening effect of the stuff in Tam O’Shanter (“Inspiring bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou canst make us scorn!) — although granted, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that life’s dangers are more easily tackled when half cut. But still, he knew the downside to drink too, etching on John Syme’s crystal goblet “There’s death in the cup – sae beware!” (admittedly, this alarming opening was followed with an honest admission: “But wha can avoid the fell snare? The man and his wine's sae bewitching!”).

It seems only right, then, to pay tribute to Scotland’s greatest poet by raising a measure in his honour. Scotch is the thing here. Scotch whisky – there’s only an “e” in the stuff that comes from Ireland and America – is often name-checked as single malt (whisky from one distillery, made with malted barley), single grain (whisky from one distillery, but made with other cereal crops, like wheat, corn or rye, and not necessarily malted) or a blend (malt or grain whiskies from different distilleries mixed together). Further distinctions can be made, but these are the big three. One is not better than the other; it depends on your preferences.

Blends are often thought of as somewhat lower down the scale, but somewhere in the region of nine out of every 10 bottles of scotch sold is a blend; while it’s perhaps true they have less character, blends are often smoother, lighter and easier-going than their single malt cousins. Good blends tend to be easy to find and not too pricey: Johnnie Walker Black is an excellent starting point, Chivas Regal’s range is marked by being smooth and sweet, J&B Rare is perfect for those who like their light (and over ice). All three are readily available in supermarkets and corner shops alike. That’s not to say there aren’t high-end blends: Ballantine’s 17-year-old (£73.50, thewhiskyexchange.com) is a longstanding favourite — light, full of vanilla, a little sweet — while practically everything in the Michel Couvreur range is worth a look; these are whiskies taken and aged in Burgundy, in sherry casks. They are unsurprisingly smooth, full of dried fruit, that beautiful raisin flavour.

Whiskies taste different depending on where they’re born. There are five regions and each sees the drink in its own way: these are Speyside, Lowland, Highland, Campbeltown and Islay. All differ (the whiskies within them do, too, especially the Highland stuff). There are countless bottles out there, and exploring is fun — albeit, incredibly expensive to do. So where to start? Speyside whiskies, especially those with heavy sherry notes, tend to be popular with most (they have none of the medicinal peat of Islay’s stuff, which is divisive; if you like it, Caol Ila, Bowmore and Lagavulin are where I’d start).

 (Press image)
(Press image)

Speyside, then. The Tamdhu 12-year-old (£43, masterofmalt.com) is the sort of thing that never fails, from the handsome, upright bottling to the rich, deep flavour, all plum and chocolate and cinnamon. A blown-out candle’s worth of smoke comes through, too, but its the sweet, stickiness of the stuff that appeals. Is the 15-year-old better? Yes, but it’s another £30, too — go as far as the budget allows. Another winning Speyside might be the Glenallachie 11-year-old Premier Cru Classe Cask Finish (£57.50, houseofmalt.co.uk), which as the name suggests is finished in old Claret barrels, offers something different: there’s a similar rich sweetness but the thing the wine finish really adds is fruit: orange, red berries, cherry. This is one to hold in the mouth: figs will come through, eventually coffee too. A stunner, really.

The Highlands are probably where best to head to next. Old Pulteney, a household name and readily available in the supermarkets, is reliable; its latest launch, the brand-new Harbour (£34, tesco.com) is perfectly built for a lively Burns knees-up — suitable given its price, and for how easy it is to drink. Pulteney’s distillery sits close by the sea (hence the Harbour moniker), and is famous for what it calls its salt brine finish; certainly, it’s a drink that you imagine drinking on a cold, blustery beach. It’s the sort of romance Burns would have approved of.

Looking to spend a little more? Highland Park’s 15-year-old (houseofmalt.co.uk) has a silly name — Viking Heart, they call it — but the spirit is serious stuff (as is the beautifully-engraved bottle). It starts with the gentlest suggestion of peat, and with that a little spicy heat, but the thing is all toffee and honeycomb, and soon vanilla and Christmas spices, mostly cinnamon. The kind of whisky to start with at pudding and keep going through till the end of the night.

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

Those looking for a conversation piece, meanwhile, should try one from the Macbeth series, put together by Livingstone. Pick the Bloody Sergeant Blair Athol 10-year-old (£94.95, thewhiskyexchange.com). There’s the bottle for a start, which is illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake, and pictured above. The name is for the character in the Scottish play who recounts Macbeth’s heroic deeds to King Duncan — in Livingstone’s series (which, admittedly, sounds a little like bait for collectors), there are nine other bottles to try. But this one is good whether you give a monkeys about all that or not: the flavour is sweet and almondy, with raisins and sultanas, vanilla and spice. It’s a big, barrel-chested drink, strong enough to overpower even the proudest of pipers. Mind you, if you really want a story to tell, try doing a blind-tasting with another full-bodied dram, the fig, sherry and coffee-forward Aber Falls Single Malt, a bargain at under £25 (£23.99, bythebottle.co.uk). What’s the story? This single malt isn’t Scottish at all — it’s Welsh.

Those who don’t fancy taking their Scotch straight can always mix up a cocktail. Those most fitting of these, no surprise, is a Bobby Burns

Those who don’t fancy taking their Scotch straight can always mix up a cocktail. Those most fitting of these, no surprise, is a Bobby Burns; the traditional UK recipe calls for equal parts scotch (choose a blend) and sweet vermouth, with a half measure of Bénédictine. Mix all three ingredients over ice, before straining into a chilled glass, ideally a Martini glass. Twist a peel of lemon over the glass, wipe it over the lip of the glass and then add it as a garnish. There is another recipe for a Robert Burns cocktail that swaps the Bénédictine for orange bitters and absinthe (or in some cases Pernod) but it’s notably different – and there’s a chance it’s named for a cigar salesman, rather than the great poet of the highlands.

Another fitting drink for the night is the Rusty Nail; this hardy recipe is almost impossible to ruin. It’s scotch — whichever you’re in the mood for, though peat monsters often don’t mix so well  — stirred over ice with Drambuie, the whisky-honey liqueur. Drambuie can be sweet, so don’t overdo it: aim to have a ratio of three parts whisky to one part Drambuie.

Finally, finish the night with a Hot Toddy. In the bottom of a mug, stir together a double of blended Scotch with two tablespoons of honey, add a cinnamon stick if there’s one to hand, and top it up with boiling water. Squeeze in lemon to taste (lots is often best) and add a clove or two if you’ve one to hand.

Feast

A haggis being piped in, as is traditional (Getty Images)
A haggis being piped in, as is traditional (Getty Images)

Burns is back on the calendar and London is happily full with places to book for, from Bentley's to Boisdale, the Oyster Shed to the Audley. Have a read of our guide to where to eat here.

But what or order? Or better yet, cook at home? The format is simple (the poetry? Not so much). The first course is traditionally Cullen skink, a soup made of smoked haddock, onions and potatoes, and named for a town on the North Sea coast.

Next comes the main course of haggis. Sometimes the haggis arrives accompanied by bagpipes; usually before eating, Burns’ Address to a Haggis is read. The crowd will toast the haggis and tuck in. Haggis is warming, delicious and even the truth of what makes it is not so unpalatable: sheep heart, liver and lungs are minced together with onion and oatmeal, furiously spiced and mashed with suet, all held together, sausage-like.

Traditionally, haggis is served with "neeps and tatties", simple nicknames for turnips and potatoes. Plenty of the capital’s best butchers have them in at this time of year — haggis, not the sides — but Marks & Spencer and Waitrose tend to do versions too, and they're a bargain to boot (don't expect to pay much more than a fiver). It’s not a dish that needs messing about with, either: just cook the thing simply, either steaming it (a normal haggis will take an hour or so), or popping it in the microwave as per the instructions. Microwaving ruins many things, but not haggis. It's hardier than that. For pudding, the two to choose from are either a cranachan, most commonly served and effectively a whisky trifle; or a clootie dumpling, a steamed pudding not dissimilar to Christmas pudding, although with more ginger, cinnamon and treacle.

Either way, enjoy it all with a large glass of something good. Slàinte.