What to drink on Burns Night

Nick Moyle and Rich Hood

Burns Night is rooted in Scottish tradition, so it's custom to toast the bard with a Scottish drink in your glass. Here’s an idea of what those boozes could be…

The annual celebration of Robert Burns’ birth (January 25th, 1759) is a chance for Scots to show their appreciation of the legendary poet by having a good ol’ knees up, with food and booze at the heart of the entertainment. And much like Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day, even non-nationals consider it a good enough excuse to join in with the merriment and raise a glass or two.

 

Whisky

The most obviously Scottish booze is, of course, whisky. But what dram you should you decide upon and how best to drink it? 

Our first suggestion would be to turn your attention to the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, home to the Arran distillery, a patron of The Robert Burns Society. This patronage has led to two whiskies being produced in Burns name—a blended malt and a single malt with a light, honeyed fruit flavour and a dry spicy finish.

There are many folks who think the best Scotch whiskies are peated—a tradition that arose from using peat fires to dry the malt which imparted a smoky flavour to the distilled spirit. It’s another Island, Islay, that is most well-known for its peaty whiskies and newly launched The Character of Islay Whisky Company has brought out a bottle that exemplifies the style. Aerolite Lyndsay is sweet and smoky with a hint of brine that brings to mind the wild Scottish coast.

When it comes to serving your whisky, a drop of water will bring out more flavour and also reduce any alcohol burn. You could also try mixing your whisky with ginger wine, using a ratio of 3 to 2 in favour of the whisky, to create the popular drink known as a Whisky Mac.

 

Gin

As with their English neighbours, Scots have gone gin crazy, with numerous distilleries dishing out a huge array of fine spirits, many using locally sourced botanicals. 

One of the best is The Botanist, produced by Islay’s Bruichladdich distillery, which contains 22 botanicals foraged from the island. These include heather, thistle, gorse, tansy and, of course, juniper, making a dry gin that’s florally complex and infinitely refreshing.

Another distillery capitalising on local ingredients is Dunnet Bay, whose Rock Rose gin uses roots from the plant which gives the gin its named. Rowan berries and Sea Buckthorn also feature, producing a punchy gin that comes alive with flavour when used in a G&T.

 

Beer

Scotland has a proud history of brewing, including some styles that are all its own, with perhaps the most Scottish of these being Fraoch, also known as Heather Ale—a floral brew that dates back to 2000 BC. The only brewery that currently produces this style with any regularity is Alloa’s Williams Brothers, who also produce other traditional Scottish ales made with pine, gooseberry and elderberry.

Besides producing beers with local ingredients, Scotland also has its own unique way of categorising beers. “Shilling” was a term used to define different strengths, prefixed by a number that reflected the price per cask in the 19th century, which was determined by the beer’s alcohol content. So a 60/- beer was light, usually under 3.5%; 70/- was a little stronger and known as a “heavy”; 80/- (or “export”) was stronger again; and anything over around 6% was likely to be labelled 90/-, or a “wee heavy”. 

Not many breweries use this categorisation these days, although you’ll often find the terms “heavy” or “wee heavy” used to describe beers, particularly by American breweries hoping to emulate the Scottish brewery style. For a modern take on a Wee Heavy, take a look at Tempest Brewery who give their version a lift with the citrussy, piney Waimea hop.

 

Other drinks

If whisky, gin or beer don’t appeal then fear not, because Scotland’s booze repertoire doesn’t stop there. 

Eight Lands is an organic distillery based in whisky’s famous Speyside region, but they focus on white spirits instead. Along with a gin, their vodka is well worth investigating for its smooth sipability and clean grain flavours which cut a dash (and add a hint of spice) in any vodka-based cocktail.

 

Cider drinkers can get their fill of apply goodness thanks to Thistly Cross, who press and ferment—and even mature some ciders in whisky casks—their base just outside Dunbar.

 

For the most Scottish of liqueurs, look no further than Drambuie, a heady mix of heather, honey and spices that’s an essential component of the cocktail “Rusty Nail”. 

 

And if you want to transport yourself away from the wintery Scottish surroundings to some place warmer, then what better than a spiced rum, courtesy of Dark Matter—distilled in Aberdeen for a taste of the Caribbean. 

 

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