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Robert Burns Night: What Scotch Drinkers Need To Know

There’s no getting around it. Late January can be a bummer. The holidays are long gone, but spring is still months away. Here in Portland, the morning and evening commutes are still pitch dark, and it’s getting hard to imagine a life without soggy socks, clogged storm drains, and constantly dripping raincoats.

Times like this, you really need something – anything – to look forward to. Fortunately, another damp and gloomy place has just the antidote for midwinter ennui.

January 25th is Burns Night, a night to celebrate the life of Scotland’s most beloved native son, Robert Burns. Burns was a wine, women, and song kind of poet (only he was a Scotsman, so that’s whisky instead of wine).

Born as the son of a tenant farmer in 1759, Burns wrote poems and lyrics that encapsulated the trials and pleasures of everyday life during the Georgian era. His direct, generous writing style and “dignified plainness” inspired the Romantics and wooed the ladies (he sired 12 – or more – children).

During his short life (he died at just 37), he traveled from Scotland to the Caribbean and back again, and penned Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae, Tam o’Shanter, A Red Red Rose, and dozens of other songs and poems that remain vital part of Scottish cultural life, even today.

Robert Burns
Walter Scott was struck by Burns’ appearance, saying “the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.” Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth.

The traditional way to remember Robbie is to throw a Burns Supper, an evening featuring many of his favorite things: haggis, whisky, songs, poetry, toasting, and some good-natured griping about relations between the sexes. If you’re in need of a late January pick-me-up, there’s still time to host your own Burns Supper. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • The “great chieftain o’ the puddin-race,” a Haggis. Here’s an authentic recipe (not for the faint of heart). f you can’t lay your hands on a sheep’s stomach, Chow Hound offers a recipe modified for American shoppers. And if even beef bung sounds a little too adventurous, you can even make a (highly inauthentic) vegetarian haggis. Whichever you choose, you’ll need some mashed neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) on the side.
  • A Host. This should be somebody comfortable with pronouncing phrases like Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve, or at least somebody willing to drink enough to feel comfortable. The host’s duties include welcoming guests, addressing and then disemboweling the haggis, toasting the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, and wrapping the evening up by leading the guests in singing Auld Lang Syne.
  • A Piper. At a traditional Burns Supper, the haggis is presented in a procession led by pipers. In a pinch, recorded bagpipe will do.
  • Scotch. No cutting corners here. Don’t even think about sneaking a bottle of Maker’s or Jameson into the mix. Burns night is a great night to go historic: Glenturret, Bowmore, Balblair, and Oban are among the oldest Scottish distilleries. (Bowmore, founded in 1779, is even contemporaneous with Burns.) Or, celebrate Scotland’s continued vitality by picking up a bottle of Kilchoman, founded in 2005. Just make sure you have enough on hand for at least a half-dozen rounds of toasting.
  • Your opinions about the opposite sex. At Burns Supper, there’s time for an “Address to the Lassies” and “Reply to the Laddies” from male and female guests, respectively. Think light-hearted roasting, not an offensive airing of grievances. You should all still want to drink whisky together afterwards.
  • A love of poetry. A good Burns Supper begins and ends with Burns’ verse, with opportunities for additional recitation throughout the evening.

And if January’s got you down too far to host a party, think of this Burns Night as an occasion to settle in with a generous dram and a good book. Laphroaig 10 Year makes an excellent, luxe toddy practically guaranteed to cure the doldrums:


  • 1 part Laphroaig 10 Year Old
  • 1/2 part ginger liqueur (Portland’s New Deal Distillery makes a good one)
  • 3 parts hot apple cider (or ginger tea)
  • Freshly ground cinnamon

Build in a pre-heated coffee mug. Garnish with a lemon wedge studded with cloves and a dash of freshly ground cinnamon.

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