It’s the 25th January and yet again social media would have us believe that the only thing to be imbibing tonight is haggis and whisky in homage to Robert Burns. I have seen posts exhorting us to drink Swedish, Orcadian and Japanese whiskies but I always think of it this way: with the great Scottish history of whisky distilling - legal and illegal - what would Burns have been drinking as surely they are the drams with which we should celebrate the anniversary of his birth?
Robert Burns was no angel - maybe that is why he is held in such enduring esteem? He was a rather lost philanderer who knew good times and bad but was loved unconditionally by Jean Amour, the mother of most of his many children and whom he eventually married.
Burns lived from 25th January 1759 until 21st July, 1796. Many of the distilleries of his day are no longer in production but I selected three that could make claims to be the drams to drink today: Strathisla, Balblair and Glen Garioch.
Strathisla is Scotland’s oldest working distillery in the Highlands, founded in 1786, well within Burns’ lifetime. It is a very easy whisky: I find the 12yo quite light although some refer to it as rich and fruity, which comes from its sherry barrel maturation. It does develop on the palate but I like just a little more edginess in my dram. It’s popularity is, however, enduring and may be something to do with its very reasonable price for a Speyside 12yo at around £33.
Across the Cromarty Firth and further north by Tain, Balblair was founded in 1790 and would therefore have been well into production in the Bard’s lifetime. If ever there was a whisky to divide opinion it is Balblair but I am on the side of enjoying it. The drams are generally complex and worth working at but in 2018 Gordon & Macphail released a deliciously accessible 12yo Balblair as part of the Discovery range, showcasing its exceptional bourbon maturation characteristics. As this range all retails at just shy of £50 it is a dram that is well worth a taste.
Time and again I return to Glen Garioch, a distillery in Aberdeenshire in the heart of wheat growing country. My favourite dram to date of theirs is the Founder’s Reserve, an unusually smooth and creamy whisky for me but an utterly affordable single malt at around £35. Now, the eagle-eyed amongst you will spot the date of 1797 on the label of the bottle, a year after Burns’ death. However, Glen Garioch was built on the site of the previous Meldrum distillery and so, in my mind at least, Burns would certainly have had the possibility of enjoying a dram from this site.
Were I to be supplying the whisky for a haggis supper tonight I would certainly be serving Glen Garioch. However, we will be at the local pub with our traditional music group to supply some entertainment during an Impormptu Burns Supper raising funds for CLAN, the local cancer support group. Haggis here in Orkney is served with minced beef in gravy accompanying it and clapshot, a dish of tatties and neeps (swede) boiled and mashed together. We’ll be playing sets of Robert Burns waltz’s, reels and marches. For Nick and I, at least, his music is easier than his poetry.
Now, I must go and look up the proper words for the verses of Auld Lang Syne.