The best whiskies to try this Burns Night

‘Such flavours at the sweeter end of the Scotch spectrum are, to me, the better foil for a Burns Night dinner’

It was in 1801, five years after his death, that nine friends first got together to celebrate the life and work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. The night, which included an Address to a Haggis, performances of the bard’s work and a speech in his honour, was all accompanied by a few drams of Scotch whisky and took place at Burns’s cottage in Alloway, in July.

It was such a success that, the following year, the group decided to repeat the occasion. The only change was that it would be held, in more celebratory fashion, on Burns’s birthday, 25 January.

More than 200 years later, the tradition is still going strong, and the winter timing arguably lends itself a little better to such warming fare. These days, you don’t need a kilt and sporran, a connection to Burns, or indeed any famous clan, to toast Scotland’s most celebrated shaper of words. An appreciation of verse and whisky is all that’s required to pay homage to a man who inspired everyone from Abraham Lincoln to John Steinbeck, Bob Dylan to Coca-Cola (which produced a commemorative bottle in his honour).

London restaurant The Ivy will, this week, host its own Burns Night dinner, with a tasting menu featuring such delicacies as oat-rolled-haggis bon bons paired with whiskies from venerable distillery The Glenlivet, whose heritage can be traced back almost as far as that of Burns Night itself, with the distillery celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. Indeed, to mark its bicentennial, The Glenlivet has released a 12 Year Old 200 Year Anniversary Edition, which makes a fine dram for this Thursday’s celebrations, be they at The Ivy, or in more modest fashion.

The Glenlivet can lay claim to being the original Speyside single malt, responsible for defining the region’s sweet, honeyed style. It has, though, always had a reputation for challenging convention, be it through the harnessing of distinctive casks (it released the first whisky finished in Cognac casks) or the creation of edible whisky cocktail capsules.

Its new, limited-edition anniversary expression was matured in 100 per cent first-fill American oak casks, and showcases typically fruity tones of ripe pear and pineapple, the cask treatment also lending notes of coconut shavings and creamy vanilla, with a hint of crème caramel on the finish.

Such flavours at the sweeter end of the Scotch spectrum are, to me, the better foil for a Burns Night dinner than the smokey, peaty tones found on some island drams. Macallan’s Double Cask iteration, aged in American oak, is another 12-year-old bottle that offers the perfect sweet spot of complexity and value as it marries the classic creamy, fudge-like profile with just a hint of zingy spice.

Meanwhile, the ever-inventive Glenmorangie has just launched its own new 12-year-old, aged for the first time via a Calvados-cask finish. As you might expect, the resultant whisky has distinct notes of toffee apple, allied to pear and vanilla tones and a touch of marzipan on the finish.

A more recent addition to the Scotch firmament is a new distillery, Lochlea, which only started producing whisky in 2018. But, what it lacks in patrimony, it more than makes up for in heritage: previously a farm, the land was tilled by none other than a young Robert Burns himself, who lived and worked on the Ayrshire site as an 18-year-old, in 1777, until his father’s death, seven years later.

Lochlea was a 222-acre livestock farm right up until 2006, when it was purchased by Neil and Jen McGeoch. After much debate and several trials, the couple began growing their own barley in 2015, converting the land and existing farm buildings into a fully operational distillery in 2017 and starting to distill the following year. Today, Lochlea is one of Scotland’s very few ‘grain-to-glass’ distilleries.

Now, to mark its, somewhat, more modest fifth anniversary, it has produced its first age-statement release. Lochlea 5-Year-Old is a vatting of five casks from the distillery – each with a different oak treatment, from sherry to bourbon – that have been hand-selected by production director John Campbell. With a similarly tropical-fruit profile to the other whiskies recommended here, the nose shows notes of hazelnut, brown sugar and sourdough on a caramel and black-pepper palate, and will be available from this Thursday.

“In celebration of this special milestone, we felt it was fitting to release this whisky on Burns Night as a nod to Robert Burns, who once worked the land that we rely on for our own barley and, ultimately, our final spirit,” says Campbell.

Want more drinks content? From the Gymkhana team comes 42, an all-senses-required take on a cocktail bar…

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