Eloquent Toasts For Burns Night

Laphoraig brand ambassador Simon Brooking leads a Burns Night toast in Brookyn
Laphoraig brand ambassador Simon Brooking leads a Burns Night toast in Brookyn

The evening of January 25th, Burns Night, is a special one for whisky drinkers. As writer Alwynne Gwilt explained in a previous article, “Burns Night is the annual eve, which honours the life and works of the great Scottish ‘bard’ – Robert (or, Rabbie) Burns’ birthday.” It’s an occasion for whisky drinkers to honor the 18th century bard, considered the national poet of Scotland, by breaking out favorite and precious bottles from their Scotch collection. Some recite a Burns-penned poem or two and raise a glass. Others go all out with a ceremonial supper which includes various delicacies such as haggis and cock-a-leekie soup, sometimes accompanied by bagpipes, with intervals of poetry and song followed by whisky toasts. I’ve often said it can be a little like Scottish Passover, but with allowable leavening and less guilt. 

Rabbie Burns - 18th century hipster chic!
Rabbie Burns - 18th century hipster chic!

Why partake in Burns Night? Well, for one, thing it’s a pleasant break in the mid-winter doldrums. More importantly, with the ways of the world what they are these days, we could all stand to hear wise and articulate poetry, and share in a good belt of whisky! This year, such a celebration feels particularly relevant and unifying.

So let’s toast Rabbie Burns with some poetry, a good dram and loving kindness! For the complete poems, please click the link in the title.

Excerpt from A Bottle and a Friend, 1787

Here's a bottle and an honest friend!

What wad ye wish for mair, man?

Wha kens, before his life may end,


What his share may be o' care, man?

Bottles and friends - welcome to Burns Night! One of the best ways to kick off this drinking holiday is with a fruity dram that awakens the palate. For this, I like a blend such as Compass Box Hedonism (43% ABV, $100). Or reach for a kicky single malt like Speyburn 10 Year (43% ABV), which won a silver medal winner in the 2016 NY International Spirits Competition. At around $30 a bottle, it also happens to be one of the best whisky bargains out there.

Excerpt from A Red, Red, Rose , 1794


O my Luve is like a red, red rose

  That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve is like the melody

  That’s sweetly played in tune.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,

  So deep in luve am I;

And I will luve thee still, my dear,

  Till a’ the seas gang dry.

For this poem, the appropriate Scotch is a red-hued sherry cask finish, and one of the finest examples is the Balvenie Single Barrel 15 Year. Matured entirely in sherry butts, the romantic color of this Speyside whisky is offset by deep, rich flavors of dried figs, dates and apricot and milk chocolate. But because love such as the one represented in the poem is so unpredictable, a touch of nuttiness and a hint of acidity add to its layers of tastes. 47.8% ABV, $120

Excerpt from Tam O’ Shanter, 1790 

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!

What dangers thou canst make us scorn!

Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;

Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!

The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,

Fair play, he car'd na deils a boddle,

But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd,

Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd,

She ventur'd forward on the light;

And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!

laphroaig lore
laphroaig lore

“Face the devil,” eh? We’ll need some usquabae for sure! The word itself, also spelled “usquaebach” among other iterations, means “water of life” - the poetic metaphor for whisky. Where metaphor meets reality there is Usquaebach whisky! Since we’re going ultra premium for the occasion, break open the An Ard Ri - a cask strength that consists of more than 20 Highland malts (Inchgower, Benrinnes, Craigellachie, Glengoyne, Dailuaine, Blair Athol and Auchroisk among others) aged between 10 - to 21 years. This one exhibits a balance of dried fruits, yeasty bread, icing sugar, chocolate-almond and a whip of leather (take that, devil!). It also comes in a really fetching and festive blue glass decanter. Silver medal 2016 NYISC, 57.1% ABV, $200

Excerpt from Caledonia - A Ballad, 1789 

There was once a day, but old Time wasythen young,

That brave Caledonia, the chief of her line,

From some of your northern deities sprung,

(Who knows not that brave Caledonia's divine?)

From Tweed to the Orcades was her domain,

To hunt, or to pasture, or do what she would:

Her heav'nly relations there fixed her reign,

And pledg'd her their godheads to warrant it good.

A lambkin in peace, but a lion in war,

The pride of her kindred, the heroine grew:

Her grandsire, old Odin, triumphantly swore, -

"Whoe'er shall provoke thee, th' encounter shall rue!"

With tillage or pasture at times she would sport,

To feed her fair flocks by her green rustling corn;

But chiefly the woods were her fav'rite resort,

Her darling amusement, the hounds and the horn.

Long quiet she reigned; till thitherward steers

A flight of bold eagles from Adria's strand:

Repeated, successive, for many long years,

They darken'd the air, and they plunder'd the land:

Their pounces were murder, and terror their cry,

They'd conquer'd and ruin'd a world beside;

She took to her hills, and her arrows let fly,

The daring invaders they fled or they died.

To match a legendary Scottish tale, the complimentary whisky is Laphroaig Lore. Another silver medal 2016 NYISC winner, this one honors the passing on of traditions and stories with a heavily peated, vivacious and complex bottling from the Islay distillery. It’s a blend chosen by distillery manager John Campbell of younger and older (as old as 22-23 years) single malts from the Laphroaig warehouses aged in various barrels including first fill bourbon, Oloroso sherry and quarter casks. Peat, sweet and heat all swirl together to spin a whisky yarn fans of smokier Scotches will cherish. 48% ABV, $125

ancnoc 18
ancnoc 18

Excerpt from The Lass of the Cessnock Banks, 1780 

Her hair is like the curling mist,

That climbs the mountain-sides at e'en,

When flow'r-reviving rains are past;

An' she has twa sparkling roguish een.

Her forehead's like the show'ry bow,

When gleaming sunbeams intervene

And gild the distant mountain's brow;

An' she has twa sparkling roguish een.

Her cheeks are like yon crimson gem,

The pride of all the flowery scene,

Just opening on its thorny stem;

An' she has twa sparkling roguish een.

Photo by Richard Giles via Flickr
Photo by Richard Giles via Flickr

A proper Burns Night must always include a toast to the lassies! Strong, independent ladies deserve a mature, bold and satisfying whisky. There’s something about 18 year old malts that hit that sweet spot of creamy richness, nuanced flavors and long finishes, and brings on that “sparkling roguish een”. For something less smoky, the anCnoc 18 (46% ABV, $125) is a craveworthy Highland whisky on the fruity-chocolate bent, while the Highland Park 18 (43% ABV, $200) introduces the perfect tickle of smoke to darker tones of bittersweet and salty. If you like it really peaty, Bowmore 18 Year (43% ABV, $150) with its Islay tang, is like drinking chocolate covered pretzels by a bonfire.

Cheers to the bard and to all of you!

Excerpt from Auld Lang Syne, 1788

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne!

Chorus.-For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne.

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.