you, my Muse! Good old Scotch drink!”
So wrote Scottish poet Robert Burns of Scotland’s most famous export: whisky. Each year on January 25, Scotland celebrates his life on what is called Burns Night — an evening that includes addressing a haggis, bag piping the arrival of guests and ceilidh dancing.
It also tends to be celebrated with the imbibing of Scotch whisky — “the water of life”, or “uisge beatha” to our Gaelic-speaking friends. And luckily, the celebration of Bobby Burns has long been part of London’s January plans — as such, here we’ve rounded up some of the best whisky bars in London to grab a dram, as well as three one-off Scotch whisky experiences to raise a glass to the late, great poet. Slainte!
Grab a dram
Hidden behind a fake wall in the Scotland Yard Hotel, whisky bar Sibin is almost too fitting a spot to celebrate old Rabbie Burns. Its seriously extensive list of whiskies features old classics, experimental releases and very special drams in a plush but chilled living room-style space — well, if your living room had a ceiling built from empty bottles. Go for a surprisingly easy-on-the-purse-strings dram of, say, smoky Lagavulin 16 or Macallan 12, or splash some cash on a Springbank 22-year-old or Ardbeg 24-year-old. The Scotch whisky flights are excellent too, and for those who fancy a palate cleanser, whisky cocktails should more than suffice — including a classic Bobby Burns (scotch, vermouth, Bénédictine).
3-5 Great Scotland Yard, SW1A 2HN, hyatt.com
Milroy’s of Soho
Going to London’s oldest whisky specialist is always a good idea on Burns Night — or any other night, for that matter. Opened in 1964 on Greek Street, the small but perfectly formed street-level bar stocks some seriously cool whiskies behind its stool-lined bar. If you know what you want, chances are they’ll have it — or the incredibly knowledgeable team will guide you towards something that fits your favourite flavour profile. There are often one-off bottles, Milroy’s special bottlings and brand new releases hidden among its burgeoning collection, too. The spot to discover a new favourite dram.
3 Greek Street, W1D 4NX, milroys.co.uk
This unassuming pub near London Bridge is widely known for its excellent barbecue food — but the bar boasts one of the best whisky collections in south London, with more than 100 offered, of which around 40 are from Scotland. It reads like an alphabetic who’s who of Scotch, from Arbelour, Ardbeg and Ardmore to Springbank, Tamdhu and Tobermory, via Dalmore, Glenmorangie and Oban. You get the idea. There’ll be a special Burns Night dinner offering on the evening of the 25 itself, but if it’s just a dram you’re after, this is a perfect spot to give a low-key nod to Scotland’s favourite poet.
44 Kipling Estate, SE1 3RU, britannia.smokd.co.uk
Boisdale of Canary Wharf
The map of Scotland — complete with Loch Ness monster — on the “whisky bible” menu at Boisdale is enough to get anyone excited about what’s behind the bar. A clever illustration splits its 73 Scotches into four flavour profiles — rich, winey, delicate and smoky — with tasting notes like butterscotch, seashore, tobacco and cereal giving guests an idea of what to expect. A favourite detail is the glossary of distilleries, which offers a background of their history as well as their significance in the world of whisky — and, arguably most importantly, how to pronounce them.
1 Cabot Square, E14 4QT, boisdale.co.uk
Not for the faint-hearted (or those with shallow pockets), the generous Scotch selection at Claridge’s Bar goes up to quadruple figures for a dram. At the top end are some very special Lalique bottlings of Macallan, but there is a decent array of memorable drams that aren’t quite so eye-wateringly pricey. Try the Auchentoshan 1998 (£35) or Glenfarclas 25-year-old (£55), as well as a few classics under £20. After a whisky cocktail? Go for the Royal Stag, mixed with with Dalmore 15-year-old, or try an Angel Share, that uses Talisker 10.
Brook Street, W1K 4HR, claridges.co.uk
Cocktails are usually the first port of call on a trip to any of the three Swift bars in town, but head downstairs at the OG on Old Compton Street, and there’s a pretty cool Scotch whisky menu: cool, because alongside the usual suspects, the team has put together a list that features some of the more affordable but lesser-seen liquids. From blended whisky game-changers Compass Box, to an Ardmore that was only released in Japan, a hard-to-find peated Glenturret and more, this really is something a little out of the ordinary. Drams come in two sizes, too — so find your favourite and go big. Happily, prices start at just £5.
12 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TQ, barswift.com
Under the streets of Shoreditch you’ll find Black Rock, one of the capital’s bars best-known for its dreamy selection of whiskies. They’re organised by flavour, so whether you’re an expert or a novice, the staff will guide you in the right direction. An 18 foot hollowed out oak tree trunk casually sits in the middle of the bar, with one of the two rivers running through it being a house blend — check if it’s a Scotch blend for something a bit different. Drams are either £8, £10, £12 or £13 and upwards, and its Perfect Old Fashioned mixes no less than three Scotch whiskies: Balvenie 12-year-old, Glenfiddich 12-year-old and Aisla Bay.
9 Christopher Street, EC2A 2BS, blackrock.bar
Go the whole haggis
The Sun Tavern
Normally known for its pleasing array of Irish whiskies, Bethnal Green’s Sun Tavern is going Caledonian for the 25, in partnership Highland Perthshire’s Aberfeldy 12-year-old. Among the three cocktails on offer on the evening will be the team’s take on the classic Scottish dessert, Cranachan, while those after simpler pleasures can enjoy a Beer and Bump (a shot of Aberfeldy and a ginger beer). It doesn’t end there though: expect a traditional address to the haggis, haggis bites on the house, and a rendition or two of some Burns’ poetry — and Rennie from Scottish band The View will be DJing into the night, too.
From £8.50, 441 Bethnal Green Rd, E2 0AN, thesuntavern.co.uk
Lovers of peat and poetry should head below ground to the Nomad’s newest bar, Common Decency, where smoky Laphroaig will be centre stage on a special cocktail menu for the night in question. Three Scottish ingredients — honey, dandelion and sea buckthorn — will be translated into two different cocktails each, all featuring the peated Islay whisky. Burns’ poetry will be read throughout the evening by drag artist Maxi More, who no doubt will bring a blue hue to proceedings — we’re already excited about their rendition of Holy Willie’s Prayer…
From £18, 28 Bow Street, WC2E 7AW, thenomadhotel.com
Milroy’s of Spitalfields
For real Scotch whisky-heads, Milroy’s of Spitalfields — sister of the aforementioned Soho stalwart — will be hosting a Burns Night “distillers’ edition” tasting. Distillers’ editions are single malts from well-known distilleries that have gone through intriguing cask finishes, giving well-loved drams a different dimension. Kicking off at 7pm, guests will be taken through a flight of five whiskies from five distilleries: Glenkinchie, Oban, Cragganmore, Talisker and Lagavulin. The tasting will take place in the upstairs the Dram House, so head down to the bar afterwards for highballs on tap or a dram of one of its 1,000 whiskies.
£30, 76 Commercial St, E1 6LY, milroysofspitalfields.co.uk