The national poet of Scotland is Robert Burns (1759-1796). He was a poet and lyricist who wrote in both Scotch Gaelic and English. A Scottish cultural icon, his poems are a bedrock of Scotland’s national identity. Among his many compositions are A Red, Red Rose, Tam O’ Shanter and, of course, Address to a Haggis.
The tradition of the Robbie Burns Dinner began five years after his death when a group of his devoted friends hosted a dinner to celebrate his life and work. The tradition caught on and was usually held on or around his birthday, 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.
At the heart of the celebration is the Burns Supper or Burns Night—a traditional Scottish dinner typically accompanied by numerous speeches, recitals of Burns poetry and, of course, numerous toasts accompanied by drams of Scotland’s golden elixir.
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.
Traditionally, the dinner party stands when the haggis is brought in by the cook. A bagpiper then “pipes” in the haggis while the cook presents it 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 Robert Burns, punctuated 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.
It’s understandable if you would just as soon skip the haggis. Not a surprise, it’s definitely an acquired taste. Probably a good idea to also skip the “Address to the Lassies” and the “Address to the Laddies.” These days both speeches might run afoul of political correctness. So, best we just go straight to the whiskies!
What whiskies should you drink on Burns 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 until William Gladstone, Minister of the Exchequer, in the Palmerston/Peel government introduced the Spirits Act of 1865. Whisky was a serious matter in mid-19th century Great Britain. Roughly one-third of the governments tax revenue in 1870 came from taxes on the manufacture or sale of alcoholic drinks.
At the time of Robert Burns, the only whisky available would have been single malt Scotch whisky, virtually all of which would have been bootleg. The exception would have been a few Lowland Distilleries, most of which would have been undrinkable anyway. 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.
The whisky that would have been served at the first and subsequent Robbie Burns Dinner in the 19th century, would have been peated, at cask strength, and likely matured, if at all, in an ex-Sherry cask.
There aren’t a lot of options that meet all three criteria, but several do, and there are a few more that come close.
The Campbeltown region is a good place to start if you are looking for a single malt Scotch whisky style that Robert Burns would have found familiar.
A classic choice is the Glen Scotia Victoriana. This is a slightly peated, cask strength expression, 30% of which is finished in Pedro Ximénez (PX) Sherry casks. PX Sherry is produced from slightly raisinated grapes, and imparts strong flavors of raisin and dried fig.
It’s called Victoriana because it mimics the style of whisky that prevailed in Scotland during the reign of Queen Victoria. The Glen Scotia Victoriana is probably the closest you can get to a Scotch whisky style that Robert Burns would have recognized and enjoyed. If you are planning a Burns Dinner, Victoriana is your must go to Scotch whisky.
Try also the Glen Scotia Double Cask, Single Malt Whisky. This is bottled at 40% ABV and is double matured in bourbon bottles and in PX Sherry casks. Both expressions offer notes of salted caramel, butterscotch, sweet, dried fruit flavors of raisin, date and fig, ending with a Sherry finish.
The Springbank whisky expressions are also a good match. Springbank is Glen Scotia’s neighbor in Campbeltown. Their whiskies typically include some portion of peated malt in a style very reminiscent of 19th century Scotch whisky. Try, in particular, the Springbank, Cask Strength 12 YO or the Springbank 18 YO. Both offer sweetness surrounded by pronounced smoky peaty notes, a style that would have been very recognizable to Robert Burns.
Loch Lomond has three whiskies that will also fit well into any Robert Burns Dinner. The Loch Lomond 12 YO and the Loch Lomond Inchmoan 12 YO offer up a honey sweet, fruity style complemented by soft smoke and warming spices. The perfect whiskies for a Burns Dinner toast. The Loch Lomond Inchmurrin 12 YO is exceptionally fruity, with notes of peach and apricot, but lacks the smoky notes found in the other two whiskies. All three however would pair very well with the typical menu of a Burns Dinner.
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. Try also the recently released Benromach 21 YO. At 43% ABV it is not quite cask strength, and it is matured entirely in ex-bourbon casks, but it’s a pretty good facsimile of a style of whisky that Burns, and later his friends, would have drunk.
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 Burns Supper would also find quite familiar.
Signatory has a cask strength, Sherry matured Glenlivet. This expression is unpeated.
Other possibilities include the Laphroaig Cask Strength 10 YO, a classic heavily peated Islay whisky that has graced many Burns’ 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 Burns Night with a Burns Night Tasting Set and interactive virtual whisky quiz. The Tasting Set retails for around $40 and comes with a link to the online quiz.
Hosted by The Whisky Exchange shop managers Alex Huskinson and Chris Bolton. Prizes include Whisky Show tickets (worth around $300), special bottlings and a Robert Burns Gift Pack donated by the Arran distillery.
Serious about celebrating Burns Night? Consider enrolling in Burns Distilled, Tuesday, January 25, 2022 (7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. EST), hosted by renowned Burns performer, Braveheart actor and veteran whisky man, Andrew Weir. Accompanied by some of Broadway’s finest musicians and a host of guest performers and whisky personalities, Burns Distilled invites guests to learn about and pay homage to famed poet Robert Burns from the comfort of your own home during this one-of-a-kind virtual Burns Night Supper.
There are two ticket options to participate in the Burns Distilled virtual experiences at home:
Streaming Ticket ($24.50): Includes all-household access to the full Burns Distilled virtual event via unique access code; ability to participate in and enjoy all interactive components of the event; an in-home Burns Supper experience pack delivered via digital download.
Full Experience + Tasting Ticket ($79.50): Includes all Streaming Ticket access; 1 Burns Supper in a Box (4 samples of Scotch including Laphroiag, Arran and others, to accompany ambassador led tastings throughout the event, 1 Glencairn Whisky Glass, 1 Book of Burns, 1 Haggis Crisps, 1 Cookie, commemorative program art and more! You must be at least 21 years old to enroll. Purchase by Wednesday, January 19, using code Haggis 10 for a 10% discount.