‘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
Ardbeg Wee Beastie 5 Year Old
Young Ardbeg bottlings are hardly unprecedented – there were several as the distillery was resurrected during the 2000s – but there’s a irresistible feral charm to this five-year-old Islay malt. All the meaty smoke and maritime grime that you’d expect, but at this age the bright charm of Ardbeg’s juicy fruits also shine through. Alcohol 47.4%
Balblair 18 Year Old
One of Scotland’s most photogenic distilleries produces one of its fruitiest spirits – a sumptuous style that needs time to find its poise. A judicious combination of ex-bourbon and ex-Sherry maturation adds richly spiced, raisined layers to luscious dessert apple, with just a suggestion of stronger, darker flavours in the background. Alc 46%
Compass Box Hedonism
An iconoclastic blended grain whisky that’s become a modern classic more than 20 years after its initial release. A velvet smoking jacket of a dram: silkily decadent and smooth, mingling coconut milk, white pepper and vanilla ice cream. There’s a nagging nutty edge that stops all that sweetness from becoming sickly. Alc 43%
Craigellachie 17 Year Old
A Speysider famed for its sulphurous stink, Craigellachie mellows with age, without entirely losing the funk. After 17 years, it’s practically polite, with ripe tropical fruits to the fore and vanilla-accented sweetness from the cask. But there’s a smidgeon of spiced meatiness and charry smoke lurking in the background. Alc 46%
Bottled at a take-no-prisoners 60% abv, this requires a drop of water – or a little bravery – but its richly spiced, toffeed delights are ample reward. Syrupy orchard fruits, whispers of savoury smoke, the plush scents of fine Sherry casks… The quintessential expression of a classic single malt. Alc 60%
James Eadie’s Trade Mark X Blended Scotch Whisky
A painstaking recreation of a family recipe from Victorian times, and a time capsule back to an era of full-flavoured blends of real character. Richness runs through this, but its genius lies in the juggling of the sweet and the savoury: honey roast ham, black cherry and a background aroma of freshly swept chimney. Alc 45.6%
Kilkerran 12 Year Old
Produced at Glengyle distillery, this is a well-spoken reinterpretation of classic Campbeltown – lightly smoky and oily, but never heavy. Sugar-dipped doughnuts, clear honey and bright citrus never entirely dominate the savoury elements. Increasingly hard to track down, but well worth the effort. Alc 46%
Mortlach 16 Year Old
Part of a reconfigured range launched in 2018, this is a richly Sherried take on Mortlach’s famously meaty, weighty character, which has earned it the moniker ‘The Beast of Dufftown’. Seamlessly spicy, with oodles of dried fruit and bitter dark chocolate. Put the water aside to get the full effect. Alc 43.4%