l’ Rabbie Burns may have known the downside to drink when he wrote on John Syme’s goblet “There’s death in the cup – sae beware!”, but he knew the draw of it too, following his alarming opening 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. 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 bravening effects of John Barleycorn, and in Scotch Drink, where he named it as his muse (an admission which, you suspect, may have followed a glass too many).
Whether you’re toasting the Address to the Haggis or wailing along to Donald, Where’s Your Trousers? (Spotify it), here’s our pick of the drams that’ll keep you dancing, whether you’re doing a ceilidh or not.
The Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut
Speyside, where this is from, is famed as the place many whisky-drinkers start: little surprise, given more than 50 distilleries can be found by anyone roaming through the gentle hills there. But the real reason is because the whiskies made here tend to be a little softer, a little lighter, a little easier-going. This, too, is why lots of Scotch-lovers come back to it after ranging through the smoke of the Highlands or the peat of the islands.
Speyside offers whisky most will always want to drink; this is a nice example, though it isn’t so straightforward. Aged in sherry casks, the flavours are all sugar and burnt toffee and sweet chocolate. There’s no age statement, and the sherry is perhaps doing a fair amount of heavy lifting to tame what might be a young, fierce whisky underneath. But, after a little while settling in the glass, it is smooth and there is a creaminess. It hates ice and will fight with it.
Certain bottles seem to have been to charm school, such is their seductive bent. This Bowmore — actually, more Bowmores — could be among them. The 15 is a Hollywood scotch, which is to say you imagine it is the stuff finely-suited types in smart films are pouring out to toast their successes, or drown their sorrows. In real terms, this means there is a little sweetness to it — sherry casks will do that — but, as is typical of any Scotch from Islay, peat runs through its core.
But the sweetness rounds the edges of the smoke, and adds touches of vanilla and chocolate and toffee. Drink slowly and run it across the tongue and a saltiness comes through, too: there is enough here to carry a Roy Roy cocktail, where the sweet vermouth matches the sherry note nicely.
Compass Box Orchard House
“Compass Box” has long felt an apt name for this bottler, which gently points drinkers in the right direction towards interesting and unusual whiskies. So much of Scotch is tethered to tradition; Compass Box have cast such mooring lines aside.
The name is on the money here, with it a fruitier blend of malt; the big names are Linkwood and Clynelish, but there’s a splash or two of Caol Ila, too — it adds no smoke, but a piquant pop. Some whiskies are fireside types, all rich and soft, velvet distilled; this isn’t that. It’s one to pour over a great hunk of ice and sip through to start an evening, or to drink down after a meal with a plate of cheese.
Whisky can never be “session-able” — and beware the well-hidden 46 per cent strength of this stuff — but this is a skittish kind of Scotch, one you could have between beers. Perhaps too idiosyncratic for traditional whisky cocktails, the gentle punch of its flavour means it withstands Campari nicely and can handle tagging in for gin in a Negroni.
Glen Grant 10-year-old
Six years ago I stayed at the Station Hotel, wandered down the road to the Glen Grant distillery and found it to be a beautiful spot, where sometimes roe deer would run in the gardens and a brook burbled by the orchard. You should go, too. But until you get there, try this dram.
It’s an elegant, typical smooth Speyside, and very easy to drink: fruity and floral, excellent for the money. Six years ago I liked it, now it has become an old favourite, one that seems more refined with each release. A drop of water doesn’t hurt it, but if you like adding water to whisky, the 12-year-old better for that. After more age? The 18 is a bargain.
Proof, if it were needed, that smoke isn’t flavour. While pricier now than it used to be — once this 18 was somewhere around £75, but — this non-chill filtered Highland whisky offers gentle sweetness, a gorgeous nose and lots of freshness. The best thing to do with this AnCnoc — that’s an-knock, by the way — is let it sit in the glass before tucking in.
“A year in the cask, a minute in the glass” has rarely been as true as it is here, and something about this charmingly complex dram starts to unfurl as the air skims across its surface. To start, there’s butterscotch, orange peel, a certain nuttiness that’s also carrying a fruity sweetness. Take a sip and out comes something reminiscent of Jamaican ginger cake, with plenty of pepper and that nuttiness that’s in the smell. This comes from its final ageing in Oloroso sherry casks: you taste what they’ve done, but it doesn’t overpower.
It is smooth as anything, full of body, nicely fruity and plenty rich. To go back to the beginning; there’s no smoke, but no smoke needed.
This time of year seems to demand comfort — the rest of everything seems so glum, after all — and hence all these bottles with the lift of sherry sweetness. This is another, which is notable for being a finely done blend of six whiskies; not just from one region, but from distilleries in the Highlands, Lowlands and across Speyside. There is a gentle fruit touch to smell; this is light, uplifting. That keeps going into the taste — something like mangoes is about right — but then the sweetness comes, all toffee and marzipan. It has a richness to it, proper body, and is perfect as it is, just poured, untouched. That said, it makes a beautiful Bobby Burns, which seems fitting.
Balblair is often forgotten when Scotches are name-checked — between the various Glens and the big boys like Macallan or even Johnnie Walker, it often gets overlooked. Perhaps that accounts for why this is singularly such good value. This is an elegant, powerful, classic Highland single malt; it is a little creamy, has a touch of honey, and is nicely balanced too. There is a sprinkle of spice here, but not smoke. Think of it as biscuity, perhaps even woody. There isn’t so much to say, really: it simply is a bloody good Scotch, and being affordable makes it all the more palatable.