Scotland’s National Bard is Robert Burns (1759-1796). A poet and lyricist who wrote in both Scotch Gaelic and English, he is a Scottish cultural icon and a bedrock of Scotland’s national identity. Among his many poems are A Red, Red Rose, Tam O’ Shanter, and Address to a Haggis.
In 1801, five years after his death, a group of devoted friends celebrated his life and work. The tradition caught on and came to be held on or around his birthday on January 25. That date, often called Robert Burns Day, has become Scotland’s unofficial National Day. 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 that typically begins and ends with a dram of Scotch whisky and plenty of additional drams in between.
The traditional Burns Supper begins with a soup course. The soup is usually a classic Scottish dish 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. Mixed together, the concoction is then cooked in a sheep’s stomach. Believe me, it is an acquired taste.
Haggis is an ancient dish whose roots date back to antiquity. Despite its close association with Scotland, dishes made of offal from slaughtered animals are found in cultures ranging from the ancient Romans to the Vikings.
Haggis-type foods were designed to cook and preserve quick-spoiling offal from a butchered animal. It was peasant food. The butchers were allowed to keep the offal for their troubles. Despite its ancient origins, the first written reference to haggis didn’t appear until 1430. The first poetic reference to haggis appeared in 1520, the first of many, and is attributed to William Dunbar.
Tradition has it that the dinner party stands when the haggis is brought in by the cook, while a bagpiper “pipes” the haggis to the host. A distinguished guest or the host then recites Burn’s poem Address to a Haggis. When the recital has finished, a whisky toast is proposed, one of numerous that will grace the evening.
Following coffee, the guests raise toasts to the memory of Robert Burns, often accompanied 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 it was often used as an opportunity for the speaker to give his views on women.
That address was followed by a “Toast to the Laddies.” This toast was 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.
You can certainly celebrate Robert Burns Day without serving a haggis. If it were me, I would just as soon skip it. Moreover, these days the “Address to the Lassies” and the “Address to the Laddies” might run afoul of political correctness. So, we best skip the main course and the commentary and head straight to the whiskies!
What whiskies should you drink on Burn’s Night? Any Scotch whisky will do, although if you want to be historically accurate, look to single malt, cask strength offerings, ideally ones that were Sherry cask matured and included some peated malt in their mash bills.
Neither blended whisky nor single malts existed in 1796. Blended whisky, a mix of grain whisky and single malt, wasn’t legalized until Gladstone’s Spirits Act of 1860. The act permitted whisky blending in a bonded warehouse before duty had to be paid. It allowed Scotch whisky distillers to create a whisky whose aroma and taste profile resembled Irish whiskey. At the time, Irish whiskey was the best-selling whisky in the world.
Moreover, outside of a handful of Lowland Distilleries, most of whose whisky would have been undrinkable anyway, virtually all the single malt whisky in Scotland would have been bootleg. 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 World War 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.
There aren’t many options that meet all three criteria, but several come close.
Mortlach, nicknamed “The Beast of Dufftown,” has an aroma and taste profile that would have been familiar to the participants in the first Burns Dinner. Diageo, the distillery’s owner, has a range of 12 YO, 16 YO, and 20 YO distillery expressions.
Like most Speyside whiskies, Mortlach used to be peated, but the current expressions are not. Until the 1960s, Mortlach had a distinctively smoky and peaty edge. The smokiness was gradually reduced and eliminated with the release of the most recent expressions in 2018.
Mortlach has an unusual distillation protocol. Each of its six pot stills has a different size and shape. The smallest, nicknamed the “Wee Witchee” (Spirit Still No. 1), has a capacity of only 8,000 liters.
A portion of the whisky undergoes a triple distillation, while the balance is distilled twice. The whiskies are blended to produce a spirit that the distillery describes as having undergone a 2.81 times distillation.
The distillery is also unusual because it is one of only 15 Scottish distilleries still using the traditional worm tub condensers. These condensers use a coil of copper tubing immersed in a tub of cold water to condense the spirit. Worm tub condensers minimize the amount of copper contact experienced by the spirit vapor, producing a whisky with a robust, meaty character.
Mortlach is matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and European Sherry casks. The result is a powerfully robust flavored whisky. Precisely the type of whisky that would have been enjoyed on the first Burns Night celebration.
On the nose, the whisky opens up, especially with a touch of water, to reveal notes of cooked stone fruit (think peach cobbler) and aromas of caramel, cinnamon spice, and herbal notes of dried tobacco leaf.
The whisky is oily and sweet, with a pronounced palate weight that features dried fruit notes, especially of golden raisin, fig and prune, caramel, chocolate, some vanilla, licorice, cinnamon spice, and a touch of well-seasoned oak.
The finish is long, with lingering licorice and dried fruit notes.
There are also several Mortlach expressions from independent bottlers. Gordon & MacPhail (G & M) has 25 YO and 15 YO expressions bottled at either 46% ABV or 43% ABV. All four versions are Sherry cask matured. Judging from the color and taste profile, in my estimation, the earlier bottling (43% ABV) has a more pronounced Sherry influence and, probably, a larger proportion of first-fill Sherry cask whisky than the later (46%) expression.
Both versions can be found at US retail. If you can, opt for the 43% ABV version. I think it’s more flavorful.
G & M also has a 1989 Mortlach, 54.2% ABV, matured in a single refill-Sherry hogshead cask and a 70 YO Mortlach distilled in 1938. The latter has a noticeable peat smoke character and was also Sherry cask matured. Neither is cheap. The 1989 expression sells for over $2,000 for a 750 ml bottle, while the 70 YO retails, when you can find it, for around $85,000 for a 700 ml bottle. Both, however, are superb.
See also excellent Mortlach bottlings from Signatory, Douglas Laing, and Hart Brothers.
Other Diageo whiskies that suit a Burns Night celebration include Talisker, John Walker and Sons King George V, and the Singleton of Dufftown. King George V is a blended Scotch whisky, while the Talisker and Singleton are both single malts.
King George V is hand selected from casks of Benrinnes, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Port Ellen, and the Port Dundas grain distillery. The whisky offers a complex mix of sweetness, smoke, and spice, including dried fruits, roasted nuts, and cinnamon spice.
Talisker also uses worm tub condensers and is peated, although, after 25 years of maturation, the smoky notes are less pronounced. Matured in a combination of American ex-bourbon casks and some refill European oak casks, it offers a rich mix of dried fruits and spiciness wrapped around Talisker’s characteristic maritime influence.
The Singleton isn’t peated but does have some Sherry cask maturation. It undergoes a triple maturation in a combination of European oak casks, refill ex-bourbon, and bespoke American oak casks.
The result is a powerfully aromatic whisky on the nose and palate, which features exotic spices, tropical fruits, and a sweet, mouthcoating quality with a distinctive palate weight.
Other whiskies worth considering include Speyburn 18 YO and Balblair’s range of single malt Scotch.
The Speyburn 18 YO is also produced using a worm tub condenser. It is a robust, flavorful, balanced whisky, matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso Sherry casks.
Balblair is a distillery in the Northern Highlands. It’s not well known. That’s a pity because it is an outstanding whisky that offers an extremely flavorful dram which, according to distillery manager John MacDonald, “exhibits structure, body, and balance.”
The whiskies are unpeated and, depending on the expression, are matured in a combination of ex-bourbon casks of American oak and ex-Oloroso casks. The whiskies are floral, with a distinctive dried orange zest, vanilla, and caramel note. The Sherry matured expression exhibit more dried fruit, spice and leather notes.
The 12 YO expression is sweet and fruity, with aromas and flavors of orange and lemon zest, green apples, creamy vanilla, and wood spices. The 15 YO is smooth and silky, with intense notes of tropical fruits, milk chocolate, spicy ginger cookies, creamy vanilla, wood spices, prunes, and lemon zest.
The 18 YO is rich and complex, with aromas of caramel, baked apples and pears, and new leather. The palate features notes of stone fruit, especially fresh apricot, seasoned oak, golden raisin, wood spices, and a vanilla-laced crème brûlée.
The 25 YO is full-bodied, with a dense, oily quality and a pronounced palate weight. It exhibits notes of ripe stone fruits, citrus zest, chocolate, a slight herbal note of dried tobacco leaf, and the characteristic rancio notes of well-aged, Sherry-matured whiskies: furniture wax and old leather.
This year, celebrate Robbie Burns Day, with or without a haggis, and use it as an excellent excuse to expand your whisky palate.