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
Burns may have known the downside to drink when he wrote on a John Syme’s goblet “There’s death in the cup — sae beware!”, but he knew the draw of it too, following his alarming opening line with a touch of honesty: “But wha can avoid the fell snare? The man and his wine's sae bewitching!”
The tie between whisky and Burns goes beyond a shared homeland; he wrote of it often, most famously in Tam O’Shanter, where he praised the emboldening effects of “John Barleycorn” and in Scotch Drink, where he named it as his muse. Scotch whisky – there’s only an “e” in the stuff that comes from Ireland and America – is often simply namechecked 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 cornershops alike. a little up the scale, bottles fro m That Boutique-y Company are increasingly available and worth exploring.
Whiskies taste different depending on where they’re born. There are five regions and each sees the drink in its own way: the five are Speyside, Lowland, Highland, Campbeltown and Islay. All differ (the whiskies within them do, too, especially the Highland stuff). Tasting sets are a good way to get an idea of what you like: Master of Malt offer one with a dram demonstrating what each region can do; it’s £26.95 but a good place to start (buying random bottles for a trial-and-error approach gets pricey quickly). If you can’t be bothered with all that and just want a decent bottle of something good, whiskies finished in sherry casks tend to be easy to get into, full of those beautiful, rich fruity notes and, as mostly this finishing is kept to Speysides, there’s no eye-watering, nose-smarting peat. Try the newly launched Aberlour 14-year-old, a stunning bottle.
Connoisseurs, or at least those who’ve put a few bottles away in their times, might get a kick out the a boozy Burns-themed quiz from The Whisky Exchange, taking place at 6.30pm on Monday January 25. Hosted by Whisky Exchange ambassador Billy Abbott and their head buyer, Dawn Davies, the night’s prizes include Whisky Show tickets, special bottlings and themed gifts from Arran.
Those who don’t fancy taking their scotch straight can always mix up a cocktail. Those most fitting of these 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 and add a clove or two if you’ve one to hand.
This year, it’s perhaps no surprise that not many places have gone all out for Burns, with few feeling like celebrating. The deliveries that were out there, from the likes of Boisdale and Adam Handling, have now unfortunately sold out but there are still a couple of options, especially for those willing to pick up their food. Mayfair’s Hide is serving highland lamb with rosemary charcuterie and a wild mushroom and oatmeal fried bun, served with a Rob Roy (£40 for two), while Mac & Wild’s butcher offers a venison and lamb haggis and their DIY boxes, available until the 29, have everything needed to whip up a haggis burger or haggis tacos at home (from £30). Head to their Instagram for a virtual party on Monday night.
For a full on feast, try The Cavendish. Their four course box starts with the traditional cock-a-leekie soup, a kind of chicken broth, followed by whisky-cured Scottish salmon, which comes with tokyo turnips and a heather honey vinaigrette, followed by a lamb haggis and then the traditional Cranachan to finish. Marylebone’s 108 Brasserie also offers a full supper, with three courses for collection: like the Cavendish, things start with salmon and end with the raspberry honey mess of a Cranachan, but the main here is a particularly good looking venison and haggis wellington. A poem is included with the takeaway.
On haggis, if you’re thinking of trying it, the truth of 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, egg-like. Traditionally, it’s 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, but Marks & Spencer and Waitrose tend to have them in too. It’s not a dish that needs messing about with; cook it simply, read Burns’ Address to a Haggis, and enjoy it all with a large glass of something good. Slàinte.