7 Whiskies to Celebrate Burns Night

© Marco Secchi / Getty Images

By Henry Jeffreys Posted January 22, 2016

In case you can't get your hands on any haggis. 

Members of America’s vibrant Scottish community were rubbing their hands with glee last year when the news broke that haggis, banned in America since 1971, might be back on the menu in time for Burns Night on January 25. For those who don’t know, haggis is a sort of sausage stuffed with spiced oats and sheep’s offal—including the lungs, which is what led to the ban. (The USDA classifies this part of the sheep as unsafe to eat, although no other country seems to have a problem with it.) Sadly, however, these reports appear to have been premature; the USDA has no plans at the moment to lift the ban on this Scottish delicacy.

Which is a shame, because it should be the focal point of Burns Night, the annual celebration of Scotland’s favorite son, the poet Robert Burns. (It’s a close call for that title between him and Sean Connery.) It consists of an evening of feasting, speeches and poetry. A piper plays a traditional song on the bagpipes, as someone brings the haggis into the room. The master of ceremonies then recites Burns’s “Address to the Haggis.” It begins: 

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftan o’ the puddin-race!”

At this point, according to custom, the master of ceremonies sharpens his knife and plunges it into the poor wee haggis, as during a sacrifice. It’s emotive stuff. So what is a Caledonian-American to do without the centerpiece to this celebration? Well, the bold among you could smuggle a haggis over the border from Canada; the rest of you might do as Burns would have probably done—and drown your sorrows in whiskey. Burns was a great whisky lover. His favorite was Ferintosh, from the Black Isle. When it ceased production in 1784, he mourned: “Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!” 

Ferintosh is unobtainable these days, but here are seven whiskies for all budgets that Burns himself would surely have approved of. They go equally well with or without haggis, which is actually nowhere near as revolting as it sounds: 

1. Port Ellen 1983 32 year old 
This Islay distillery closed in 1983; since then, the whiskey has become the holy grail for aficionados. Spirits giant Diageo releases tiny amounts occasionally, and even at this price demand outstrips supply. It really is a phenomenal drop, mingling layers of sweet fruity notes with peaty smoke and spice. Powerful and finely balanced. Is it worth the money? Put it this way: If I were disgustingly rich, I’d buy it. $3,399 from Ace Wine & Spirits Minnesota; acespirits.com

2. Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year old, blended malt whiskey
This lovely drop goes to show that not all the best whiskies are single malts. This is a sumptuous blend of four malts. The nose is sweet with molasses, raisins and marzipan; in the mouth, it’s peppery, floral and smoky; and the finish is of toffee. This is the kind of whiskey I’d drink if I were entertaining some top Hollywood producers. I prefer it to Blue Label, which sells for around $150 a bottle. Widely available for around $50

3. Pittyvaich Malt 25 year old Limited Release 1989 
Another rare malt from the Diageo Special Releases range, this is a mink-lined Rolls Royce of a whisky. It’s rich, fat and soft, with toffee, custard and sweet fruit, but there’s also some proper backbone and a peppery finish that will have you reaching for another sip. $449.99 Wine House Los Angeles; winehouse.com

4. Big Peat, Islay Blended Malt
As the name suggests, this is one for those who love a smoky Islay malt. Wow! This is smoky. So much smoke! Plus an oily texture and a spicy finish. It just teeters on the edge of parody but is surprisingly drinkable. Widely available for about $60

5. Glenfarclas 17 year old
Which one to pick from my favorite distillery? All their releases are so good. I’ve picked the 17-year-old because it shows so much sherry character. Glenfarclas whiskies are only aged in old oloroso sherry barrels. There’s sweet tobacco and a rum-like quality on the nose. It’s a rich drop, full bodied with a little smoke, and the classic oloroso finish of walnuts and molasses. $99.99 from Ace Wine & Spirits Minnesota; acespirits.com

6. Black Grouse, blended whisky 
The Famous Grouse is one of the very best everyday blended whiskies. You can really taste the Macallan that goes in the blend. This version takes everything that’s great about standard Grouse and adds some Islay smokiness. It’s just the thing to keep out the cold winter nights. Widely available for around $25 

7. Dalmore 15 year old 
Located just across the water from the Black Isle, this is as near geographically as you’re going to get to Burns’s favorite, Ferintosh. One sniff of this and I was transported to a gentlemen’s club. No, I don't mean Spearmint Rhino; I’m talking about the sort of place where Roger Sterling entertained in Mad Men. It smells of cigars, leather and the good old patriarchy. $90 from Ace Wine and Spirits; www.acespirits.com

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