Scotch Whiskies to keep away the cold this Burns Night!
By Master of Wine, Christopher Burr
Robert (or Rabbie) Burns the great Scottish poet, lyricist and author was born on 25th January 1759 and author of such well-known lyrics as "Auld Lang Syne", and "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose," and poems like "Tam o'Shanter", "A man's a man for a' that," and of course the "Address to a Haggis". Whist Burns was clearly brilliant, he is not without controversy as he was clearly a heavy drinker, and also fathered many illegitimate children.
Nevertheless, his brilliance and his birth are celebrated all around the World.
A Burns night on 25th has to have Scotch Whisky, so where to begin? Although Scotch is our only native produced spirit on these islands, (one might argue so is Gin where we have a wonderful diverse and expanding business, but Gin was in fact started and first created in Holland,) and it is a fascinating, to some complex, beverage.
Let's start firstly by pointing out that "Scotch" falls broadly into two main categories; Blends, made generally from whiskies from grain (wheat or maze) spirit, and blended with whiskies made with malt (malted barley) spirit. Then Malt whiskies, exclusively from malted barley, generally from a single distillery an island or part of Scotland whose water, barley and history and traditions of making, gives it a most distinctive taste.
There is also a small category called Vatted Malts, which is a highly skilled blend of different Malts, and then there is the whole category of aged whiskies, 5, 10, 20, 25, 30-year-old etc.. This last category is now very highly sought after and fetching huge prices, depending upon age. Just before Christmas four bottles of 70-year-old Glenfiddich were sold at a charity auction to a Chinese buyer for one million pounds!
The thing you must remember about aged spirits is that they develop their character only whilst in cask, and those flavours are captured when bottled, once in bottle spirits don't change or get better.
I am a great fan of good blended whisky, as it shows the skill of the blender and the Brand or House. There are some wonderful blends, often with some barrel age. Blends Like Grant's Standfast Family Reserve, Johnnie Walker, The Antiquary which was Vat 69's premium blend and Famous Grouse. For premium blends with good age, I love Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label. My Grandfather always used to drink Haig Dimple, which has lots of Malt and good age.
These blends can be found at Master of Malt.
For Malts, it is a voyage of discovery as there is such a great difference between the five main producing areas, Speyside Malts, Highland Malts, Lowland Malts, Campbeltown Malts and the Island of Islay Malts. Some people spend their holidays visiting and learning about the numerous distilleries in these places.
If you have an urge to discover this world, look no further than the Pour and Sip Club, the award-winning Club that sends members samples from around Scotland.
Some of the most fascinating things about how Scotch is made are the decisions around how the grain or barley is selected, how it is malted (gently cooked in oast houses using things like peat or oak chips to give flavour and convert the carbohydrates in the grains into sugars,) blending, and then the ageing in cask. The Distilleries often use old sherry or port or even wine casks, imparting a multitude of further flavours. I would urge you to visit a Distillery and see how our native spirit is made.
Enjoy 25th January, and ‘Slainte Mhath!’
(p.s. that's Gaelic for "cheers" and pronounced Slanj-a-va.)
Updated 18th January 2022