A Sassenach’s Guide to a Burns Night Supper (With many Whiskies)

We called it a Burns Night Supper, even if it was a couple of weeks early. If you think about it, in all those Christmas cookery specials we’ve just been bombarded with Delia, Rick, Nigella, Jamie and Hugh, they had their decorations up in June, so a fortnight ahead of time hardly seems like cheating. Maltjerry’s Burns Night Whisky Dinner, then.

I was trying to remember why I like Burns Night so much. Not because of any Celtic connection (my father was born in Newport, Wales). Is it the haggis? Because it can’t have always been the whisky. I have liked haggis as long as I can remember, but I can remember specifically my conversion to whisky. My Dad liked scotch, usually a blend: Bells, Teachers or Famous Grouse, and always drank it fifty-fifty with water. I couldn’t see the point of the stuff. And then I found Laphroaig.

How I became Maltjerry, The Beginning
I was out with a friend looking for a pub, probably jobless after graduation, surely not even aware that it was Burns Night until spying a chalkboard outside a pub in Battersea, we spotted a sign: “Burns Night: Laphroaig Malt Whisky, 2 for 1”. Well, you know what parsimonious recent graduates are like; that’s a free drink in anybody’s book. We went in. Never let anyone tell you that big, peated whiskies are not for beginners.

Nothing had prepared me for the smoky, medicinal and hugely-flavoured peat bomb we were offered. I knew about malt whisky because of the occasional Glenfiddich that came out at Christmas, but this was a different planet. How could it even be remotely related to Dad’s tipple? A switch had flipped in me. There must be something in this whisky thing after all. It’s partly down to the realisation – whisky is a very broad church, that I’m so keen to make new converts; I’m convinced there is a whisky for everyone. Burns Nights were never the same.

Now, I like Burns Night because of the whisky. Of course, I can drink whisky whenever I want, but Burns night offers a couple of opportunities that don’t present themselves very often. The traditional supper is one of the few times you get to drink whisky with a meal. More importantly, it is also one of the few times you get to legitimately have a go at persuading non-whisky lovers. I’m still pretty keen on the haggis, too.

A whisky dinner is born
Fast forward to the beginning of December, and dinner at friends. Conversation got around to this blog and my interest in whisky. Gill our host, was looking for a something of a treat for her father on his upcoming visit to the UK. Both originally from Scotland, the father with an interest in malts. She asked me if I’d do a tasting for them and a few friends in January.

Whisky tastings are a bit tricky to organise, and unless you already have a few different bottles, they can be an expensive way of finding out what you don’t like. I had just the solution: the Master of Malt samples.You might have read in one of the  ‘Tis the season to Buy Whisky posts that Master of Malt.com sell 3 cl samples of whiskies. These are not just your average miniatures; these are very cute, wax-sealed sample bottles taken from some very interesting (and varied) whisky bottlings.

Gill’s Dad made the selection from the website: Eight Islay malts and a Talisker with four of those small sample bottles for each whisky selection. Plenty of whisky to share between eight Pre-Burns Night revellers. They’re pretty cute, aren’t they?

The Master of Malt whisky sample bottles

I learn most about whiskies when I sample more than one together, and I’ve found this holds true for people not used to drinking whisky. All well and good if you have plenty of glasses. At the very least, if you’ve got enough for two samples each, side-by-side, you’re away. I’ve amassed a veritable hoard, as MaltCim will no doubt attest to.

One further ingredient for an authentic Burns supper: at least one genuine Scot. It gives a certain gravitas to Burns’ Selkirk Grace to start the meal, and of course, the Address to the Haggis. If a member of the Scottish diaspora is not to hand, there’s always Google Translate. A German whisky friend told me he used Google translate to help him with his last Burns supper. The translation of with it’s “Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!” to German and back into English was rendered as “Fuhrer of the sausage people”.

We tasted – drank – the whiskies as part of the meal. It was a dinner with friends and family, after all, and not a tasting with converted enthusiasts. I interjected occasionally with snippets of info about what we were drinking, and most importantly, asked for opinions.

This is how it went:

Scottish smoked salmon with:

1                    Bruichladdich (distillery), Age: 15 year-old, Alchemist (bottling)

2                    Bruichladdich, 19 year-old, 1989 Black Art

Haggis, neeps and tatties with:

3                    Bowmore, 26 year-old, Master of Malt, Single Cask

4                    Bowmore, 7 year-old, 2002 Murray McDavid

Crannachan, which at some point involved:

5                    Laphroaig, 11 year-old, Duthies WM Cadenhead

6                    Laphroaig, 16 year-old, 1992 Old Malt Cask Douglas Laing

7                    Laphroaig, 19 year-old, 1990 Cask Strength 89 Collection Signatory

Cheese and:

8                    Bunnahabhain, 12, 1997 Signatory Heavily Peated Casks 5342 & 5484 – Cask Strength Collection

The verdict
The 15 year-old Bruichladdich beat its older, paler sister and neither was peaty.  Not surprisingly, the 26 year-old Bowmore received greater praise than the 7 year-old: lots of perfumed smoke, but elegant and not overpowering. Tasting the Laphroaigs together was “instructive”, even for those not so keen as your convert blogger. I think the 19 year-old Signatory bottling got as many votes as the 16 year-old Old Malt Cask. The briny, medicinal Bunnahabhain in this heavily peated version, I thought was a revelation.

Even if we didn’t have the benefit of cameras for recording the events for broadcast on the real Burns Night, I hope you have enough encouragement to do something similar.

Here are the resources:

Islay whisky tasting set from MasterOfMalt.com

Burns Night info, including Selkirk Grace and Address to the Haggis, with Scots translations on Wikipedia.

Whisky tasting glasses from the Whisky Exchange.

Smoked salmon, haggis, neeps and tatties all available from Waitrose.
They’re veggie haggis is also very good, if a little oxymoronic.

For those outside Scotland, where you recruit a member of the Scots diaspora, I can’t help you with.