‘Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither / Tak aff your dram!’
Robert Burns is Scotland’s national bard, known the world over, centuries after his death, as a passionate ambassador of Scottish culture. And he loved writing about – and drinking – whisky.
Scotch is a golden thread running through Burns’ writing. It is mentioned in political poems – such as The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer, which is quoted above – as well as lighter celebrations of the joys of ‘John Barleycorn’ (his personification of whisky).
Burns died in 1796, but his name lives on thanks to Burns Night, the annual celebration held on 25 January, his birthday. What began as a low-key gathering of a few friends has mushroomed into a global extravaganza of bagpipes, haggis and – of course – whisky.
Choosing the ‘right’ dram for Burns Night depends on personal taste and purpose. If you’re looking for an accompaniment to haggis, neeps and tatties, you might want something powerful enough to stand up to all those rich flavours.
But Robert Burns was nothing if not a champion of free thinking – so the rules are definitely there to be broken. This selection of single malts and blends below will give you some inspiration.
Best Scotch whiskies for Burns Night
Balvenie 16 Year Old French Oak, Pineau Cask Finish
From a great all-rounder of the Speyside single malt scene, this relatively unusual finish in Pineau des Charentes casks explores the distillery’s exotic side, mingling pungent floral scents with lifted citrus sprinkled with shaved cinnamon. An initial maturation in American oak brings more conventional flavours of vanilla, runny honey and light ginger. Alc 47.6%
Benriach ‘The Original Ten’ 10 Year Old
Benriach’s richly fruited spirit style is arguably never better than in this financially accessible core bottling, which marries spirit matured in three cask types: ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and virgin oak. The latter is noticeably influential, bringing grip and an almost smoky oak hit, but it’s the teetering balance between the trio of wood types that most impresses. Alc 43%
Berry Bros & Rudd Blended Malt Sherry Cask Matured
Doug McIvor at Berry Bros is a Scotch whisky legend who knows a thing or two about whisky and casks – and here he puts that expertise to excellent use with a richly decadent Sherried blended malt, dripping with flavours of liquorice, chocolate-dipped prunes and perfumed spice. Not as OTT as some Sherry cask whiskies – although you wouldn’t guess that from the colour. Alc 44.2%
Clydebuilt Sailmaker Blended Malt (Ardgowan)
Another blended malt, another Sherried dram. While we wait for Ardgowan’s planned Clydeside distillery to be built, master whisky maker Max McFarlane has come up with this combination of six Highland, Lowland and Speyside distilleries. There’s plenty of exotic fruit here – rich tangerine, apricot – along with bagfuls of Christmas spice and dark chocolate. Alc 48%
Eden Mill Art of St Andrews 2022 Release
A tie-in with Fife-based artist Mairi Clark, showcasing Eden Mill’s sweetly appley spirit style, which also exhibits a drier edge of cereal and buttered wholemeal toast on top of elusive floral scents. The casks bring a creamily rich texture to carry the youthful whisky across the palate, and a bit of Sherried punch – dark spices and a touch of treacle. Promising stuff from a distillery previously better-known for its gins. Alc 46.5%
Glen Grant 15 Year Old Batch Strength
Glen Grant’s typically light, apple-scented spirit can be so subtle when young that you might miss it completely. It hits its stride nicely with age, though, especially here – where the elevated strength creates an altogether more ballsy whisky: lots of spice, lots of fruit – caramelised pear, zesty tangerine, mango – and a lengthy finish of assertive oak. Alc 50%
Glen Scotia Victoriana
The whisky outpost of Campbeltown – once an unrivalled distillery hotspot – is in full-on renaissance mode, with new distilleries planned. This cask-strength Glen Scotia is a great introduction to a distinctive, high-octane style: rich black fruits, roasted coffee bean, hints of sweet smoke and lots – and lots – of oak. Certainly not shy, and all the better for it. Alc 54.2%
Robert Burns Single Malt
Isle of Arran Distillery
Well, why not? Plastered with the image of the great man, this bottle could have been a tourist shop disaster – but the expertise of the consistently excellent Isle of Arran Distillery ensures that it isn’t. Instead, it’s a sweet, gentle dram to put a smile on the face of the harshest critic – hedgerow florals, orange zest, malted milk and light honey, plus just a hint of black banana. Alc 43%
Smokehead Islay Single Malt
It says it on the tin (and the bottle). To peat freaks, this is a reliable and reassuring encapsulation of the Islay style – yes, there’s fruit, and a bit of spice, and a touch of maritime salt, but really this is all about the bonfire and the camphor. It’s now spawned a number of variations (Terminado, finished in Tequila casks, is worth a look), but this remains a classic of its type. Alc 43%
Tamnavulin Double Cask
Tamna-who? As prices rise, the quest for value in Scotch whisky can be a difficult one. Sometimes you have to look to unheralded names to find a bargain, and this is the perfect example. Is it the most complex whisky you’ll ever taste? No. But at the price and with a judicious Sherry cask finish, this is a nicely poised glassful of dried citrus peel, baking spices and a little wood-derived smoke. When it was launched, it was also the first official bottling from this 1960s-built Speyside distillery in a couple of decades. Alc 40%