Raise a wee dram to Burns Night

Olympian Louis Smith

MOST countries like a good excuse for a (socially-distanced) bibulous meetup and for Scots, January 25 – the night when our northerly neighbours surface from mid-winter hibernation – provides one such occasion as they rejoice the life, work and birth of Scotland’s national poet and son, the ‘Bard of Ayrshire’.

The ritual basics of a Burns Supper – addressing those amassed with Burns’s poem ‘Address to a haggis,’ concluding several rounds of toasts and witty, reflective readings – have stayed the same since the first supper was held in memoriam by nine of his close friends at Burns cottage in Alloway in July 1801, the fifth anniversary of the poet’s early death. This year would have been the Bard of Ayrshire’s 263rd birthday!

So whether you are planning an all-out carnival of all things Scottish, complete with readings of Burns’s legendary verse, heaped plates of haggis, neeps and tatties, blaring bagpipes and kilt-accoutred ceilidh dancing or something more reserved, Burns Night is a brilliant opportunity to try some great Scottish food and special complementary tipples. So here are two great Scottish beers and whiskies – and also two great wines to drink on Tuesday. Slàinte mhath!


1) When beer meets whisky… Say cheers to Scotland’s favourite son with this prize-winning dark beer aged in barrels previously occupied by Highland Park 12-year-old whisky

Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 Special Reserve whisky barrel-aged ale

Alva, Clackmannanshire, Scotland (8%, Ocado, Harviestoun.com & Whisky Exchange, £3.50-£3.95, 33cl)

First released in 2008, Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh, pronounced “Ola-Doo” (meaning “black oil” in Gaelic), was the first Scottish beer to collaborate with a named Scottish whisky producer and craft an array of beers aged in malt whisky casks. The base beer for this rich and hearty brew is Old Engine Oil stout, which is then aged at least six months in whisky barrels that formerly held Highland Park 12-year-old, the all-rounder single malt whisky from the well-regarded distillery on the rugged, far-flung, windswept northerly Orkney Islands. You get lots of roasted barley flavour, plummy dried fruits, espresso, cacao, a whisper of heather and then a peaty aspect in the background with an umami depth. It is black, thick, refined and a delight to drink. Perhaps with a whisky chaser? Delve into this dark delight.


2) A special full-bodied, spicy red wine that chimes well with the peppered minced meat of haggis

The Blind Spot Grampians Syrah 2021

Western Victoria, Australia (14%, The Wine Society, £12.95)

Love it or hate it, haggis is a pivotal focus of the traditional Burns supper, its stellar quality feÌ‚ted with the traditional reading of Burns’s poem, “Address to a Haggis.” The grape that works superbly with peppery haggis, principally perhaps because it smacks of freshly cracked black peppercorns, is syrah. The Wine Society’s exclusive Australian ‘Blind Spot’ wines have been a key segment of its range for about a decade and this scrumptious cool-climate syrah is an impressively pure and fragrant small-batch rendition of compelling length, exhibiting the Grampians’ tapestry of aromas and flavours: chocolate, anise, spice, earth, liquorice, florals and supple, peppery, dark fruits (hello aromatic molecule rotundone), with foresty/ herbal nuances in play, the tannins supple, the balance impeccable. Astute winemaking, with everything gliding seemingly effortlessly, from Yarra Valley legend Mac Forbes – “one of the most exciting and pioneering winemakers Down Under,” according to the Society’s gifted Australia wine buyer Freddy Bulmer. A classic Burns Night supper of haggis, neeps and tatties or roasted meats were made for this ‘gusty’ red. Lovely wine. Ticks in every box. Restraint and detail in equal measure. Some whole-bunch fermentation (with stems included) – a red winemaking practice chiefly associated with pinot noir – gives pepper, lift, elegance, textural silkiness and freshness. 

You might consider decanting it since there’s already a rather welcome deposit (it’s both unfined and very lightly filtered). Comes in a featherweight bottle too so its carbon footprint is much lighter than many wines in heavy bottles – rest assured, there’s no link between wine quality and bottle weight. Given the price and quality, it’s enough to have you marvelling. Watch this space for new ‘Blind Spot’ discoveries since there are plans to increase this Aussie range to six wines with the imminent 2022 vintage. Only around 7,200 bottles were produced. Stunner. 


3) Must-try lightly peated single malt whisky from the island of Jura to the NE of Islay, with a population of just 200 (and thousands of deer)

Jura 10-year-old single malt whisky

Isle of Jura, Scotland (40%, Tesco, £36)

If you’re fortunate enough to find yourself at a traditional Burns Night shindig, whisky is liable to be the toasting drink of choice. No Burns Night event would be complete without a wee dram, which works particularly well both with haggis on the plate and after the repast.

According to data from the Scotch Whisky Association, Scotland is home to over 130 malt and grain distilleries, making it the world’s most concentrated centre of whisky production. In 2020, Scotch whisky accounted for 75% of Scottish food and drink exports, 21% of all UK food and drink exports and 1.4% of all UK goods exports.

I don’t often drink whisky but I love it and Burns Night is the perfect time to try a top-drawer glass or two. Matured in white oak ex-Bourbon barrels and finished in Oloroso sherry butts, this rich, rounded and lightly peated single malt from the Inner Hebrides is a glorious heart-warming dram with real bravado and character. A joy to nurse, with notes of freshly ground coffee, dark chocolate, nectarine, ginger, honey and vanilla, plus a trace of peat. Try adding a teensy drop of water — it will help to draw out the gently smoky taste. It whizzes in many different directions, but eventually it zeroes in long through the finale. A worthy tipple to raise to the ‘Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race’ served with mashed neeps and tatties or indeed a bowl of Mackie’s haggis and cracked black pepper crisps (Co-op, £1.80, 150g). One to drink with Cranachan too, the paradigmatic Burns Night dessert. Cheers, Rabbie!


4) White wine choice: what to sip with Cullen skink soup? Try this smart splash-out Aussie chardonnay…

Robert Oatley Finisterre Chardonnay 2018

Margaret River, Australia (12.5%, Waitrose Cellar/Taurus Wines/Fareham Wine Cellar/Hedonism, £19.99-£24.99)

Thick, buttery, hearty and creamy Burns Night fav Cullen kink fish soup – based on smoked haddock, incorporating both milk and potato (named after Cullen, the town where it was first made) – calls for an equally rich, multi-layered wine, think nutty Meursault burgundy (top picks include Patrick Javillier, Lafon and Leroux) or a smart barrel-fermented Australian chardonnay such as this sophisticated, mouth-filling and utterly delicious wine made by Larry Cherubino. The fruit comes from three sites in central and southern Margaret River, a temperate coastal zone to the south of Perth that’s air-conditioned by the nearby warm Indian Ocean. Expect bright and complex nutty, buttery, toasty, stone fruit and nougat flavours, perky acidity and modest alcohol (just 12.5% abv); the oak is neatly dovetailed, offering both structure and setting. Persistent, detailed and – above all – such good drinking. One for fish, shellfish and roasted white meats, too. Few will be able to decline a glass of this. Just 1600 cases were made. Seamless perfection from the first sip. 


Follow James on Twitter @QuixoticWine




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