When you write for a bourbon website with a tagline of #DrinkCurious you get unique opportunities to do just that. When you’re an adventurous couple with the family motto of “We do not let fear determine our future” you relish those unique opportunities to #DrinkCurious and expand your worldview. As we began this adventure, we were wholly ignorant of Scottish history and customs. By the end of this adventure, we were still fairly ignorant of said Scottish history and customs, but we have been enlightened on a wonderful Scottish celebration: Burns Night.
Burns Night is a celebration of the life and poetry of Scotland’s permanent poet laureate, Robert Burns. It is celebrated every year on Burns’ birthday, January 25th. Burns Night is like a Scottish St. Patrick’s Day, minus the silly green beer, leprechauns, and mandated green dress code. It still has plenty of whisky though, (as we found out) delicious Scotch whisky.
Robert Burns (January 25th, 1759 – July 21st, 1796, Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland) was a Scottish poet and is the author of many works still known today, such as “Auld Lang Syne.” Reading his poetry, one gets the sense of an honest lyricist who wrote from the heart in simple language that many still love today. Consider these two facts to understand the importance of this man: besides Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, there are more statues globally honoring Burns than any other non-religious figure and, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, “Auld Lang Syne” is one of the three most popular songs in the English language.
Burns Night was first celebrated five years after Burns' death and has been celebrated worldwide annually since. They can be formal or informal affairs and occasionally end with dancing. There is an order to the dinner. It begins with the Piping in of Guests, which is precisely what its name implies: guests are welcomed by a bagpiper or traditional Scottish music as they mingle while waiting for the supper to start (sans piper, our dinner started with a carefully curated Apple Music playlist of Scottish musicians). From there the host gives a welcoming speech and the "Selkirk Grace" is said:
Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad meat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.
The dinner then starts with a soup course, preferably a traditional Scottish soup (we had cock-a-leekie soup). The second course is comprised of haggis, a sausage containing sheep offal, onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt. Don't let the sound of haggis leave you running red-faced ala Groundskeeper Willie for the door; it is an excellent dish with a unique savory flavor. Haggis is a revered dish to the Scots and it has a special entrance at a Burns Night supper as it is piped into the dining room where standing guests await its arrival. It is presented with a special poem, “Address to a Haggis,” which the host recites, and then a whisky toast is given to the dish. It is served with tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and swede). Cheese, coffee, and dessert courses may follow the haggis course, but the haggis is the star.
A toast to the memory of Robert Burns is given after the haggis course, with guests reciting the poet's works and remarking on his contributions to Scottish culture. The men and women of the party then exchange whimsical addresses to the opposite sex, all accompanied by whisky toasts. The dinner is closed by more whisky toast (there seems to be a theme) and singing of Auld Lang Syne.
As is evident, Scotch whisky is an integral part of any Burns Night celebration. Now, we’ve tried hard over the years to like Scotch, but as bourbon drinkers could never get over the salty, peaty, sterile gauze and rubber band-aid medicinal taste of a dram of whisky. Laphroaig kindly provided samples of a couple of their expressions (10 and Lore) to pair with our foray into Burns Night, which makes sense as the distillery is located only 115 miles west of Burns’ birthplace.
Our excitement level teetered somewhere in the range of “getting a root canal” and “filing taxes” for the Scotch tasting component of this exercise. Drew, being the heroic manly-man of the marriage (read, he-with-the-lesser-amount-of-life-insurance), volunteered to taste the Laphroaig 10 first. The pour, neat, revealed a light hay-colored liquid. The nose smelled of smoky hospital hallways. There was no turning back. Our hero took his first sip and allowed the whisky to settle on his bourbon-worn tongue. He did not die as he flung himself into the Scotch abyss but was instead rewarded with flavors of Texas barbecued brisket, baking chocolate, and warm iodine (in a good way).
Flummoxed by what had just occurred, our Achilles ruminated on the fact that he had found his Scotch heel. His palette yearned for more of the neat nectar, but science and professionalism dictated he try his next sip with a little ice as he had seen so many 60s-era fellow protagonists do on T.V. The result was a softer, more open, albeit darn tasty whisky he couldn't wait to try more of. Drew moved to the Lore, determined to erect his statue in the hall of whisky tasting heroes. Lore ended up being the bawdier, more bad-ass half-brother of the 10: bigger smoke, more nuanced flavors, higher proof. It was everything our hero never knew he liked in a Scotch. Amanda was up next and her eyes bulged in delight as she took her first sip of the 10. She too loved big Scotch in the end.
Burns Night has turned out to be a pivotal experience in our spirits-drinking careers. We never knew we could like, much less love Scotch but when it’s right, it’s right and we fell hard for Laphroaig. We look forward to many more adventures in Scotch and are thankful for this opportunity to #DrinkCurious. Try hosting a Burns Night dinner. It is a delightful peek into the warmth of Scottish culture. You’ll leave with a relationship to a great man, Robert Burns, and maybe, just maybe a life-altering appreciation of Scotch whisky.