How to Throw a Burns Night Party - The Whiskey Wash

How to Throw a Burns Night Party

The Romantic poet Robert Burns is Scotland’s most beloved literary figure, and one of its most beloved figures, period. Burns is remembered not just for his verse, but as an icon of Scottishness and an inspiration to progressive political movements worldwide.

Since his death, Scots and people of Scottish descent around the world have marked his birthday, January 25th, with a ritualized meal and celebration of Scottish culture, food, and drink known as Burns Night or Burns Supper. For lovers of Scotch whisky, Burns Night means one thing: another excuse to celebrate our favorite spirit.

If you’d like to throw your own Burns Supper, we’ve got the basic elements covered:

Burns Night

A slightly more refined haggis serving (image via Visit Scotland)

Haggis

Though a Burns Supper comprises multiple courses, the essential one is Scotland’s national dish, haggis. If you live in the U.K. or elsewhere in Europe, it’s easy enough to buy a haggis ready-made. For American revelers, however, haggis poses an obstacle: for one thing, there’s a ban on lamb exported from the U.K., owing to concerns over mad cow disease. While there’s talk of lifting that ban, there’s another issue: one of the key ingredients in haggis, sheep lung, can’t be sold for human consumption in the States. What to do?

It is possible to order canned haggis online (presumably sans lungs), although substituting a can opener for a knife and a can for a sheep’s stomach has got to be an anticlimactic way to wrap up the Address to a Haggis. You can also find American-made, lung-free versions online. If you want to be adventurous, you can try your hand at making one, swapping beef liver or tongue in for lung—vegetarians and the faint-of-heart can also go for a plant-based version.

Toasts and Entertainment

The haggis acquired, it’s time to work out the evening’s proceedings. The supper starts with a recitation of the Selkirk Grace by the host, at which point the haggis and whisky are processed in. Ideally, the procession will be accompanied by actual bagpipers, but if you’re not lucky enough to have any of those around, it’s also acceptable to play recorded music: “Scotland the Brave” and “Scots Wha Hae” are both popular choices.

The centerpiece of the evening is a recitation of Burns’s famous “Address to a Haggis.” At the line “His knife see rustic Labour dight,” the speaker plunges a knife into the haggis, spilling some of its steaming guts. The guests then toast the haggis and dinner is served.

After the meal, it’s time for a series of toasts—check this BBC guide for an agenda—chief among which is a speech in Burns’s “Immortal Memory.” Toasts can be punctuated by performances of his songs or poetry, or other traditional Scottish music.

Whisky

One crucial question remains: what should you toast the haggis with?

Haggis is rich, gamey and peppery, so scotch is a natural match. When choosing a whisky, also keep in mind the traditional accompaniments to haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed rutabagas and potatoes, to us Yanks), which add an earthy, buttery, slightly sweet side to the meal. Peat is welcome here, but be wary of peat monsters, which will overpower the food. Instead, go for something with balanced smoke and sweetness, like Highland Park or Talisker 10 Year Old.