Welcome to Burns Night. The annual celebration of the life and death of Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland and has an almost cult like following as a cultural folk hero. Not a bad legacy for a man born a poor Scottish farmer and who only lived to the age of 37.
Burns was born in 1759 and wrote his first poem after falling in love at the age of 15. He and I have that in common. But unlike myself Burns pursued poetry, and love, with uncommon zeal. The first collection of his poems was published by subscription in 1786. While writing most of these poems in 1785 he also fathered the first of his 14 children. He was a busy man. As his biographer DeLancey Ferguson said of him, “it was not so much that he was conspicuously sinful as that he sinned conspicuously.”
Burns was immediately lauded through out England and Scotland as a “peasant-poet” and he took that success and used it to celebrate and preserve Scottish culture. Most of his poems are all written in Scots and document traditional Scottish culture. He also preserved folk songs. You can blame ol’ Rabbie Burns for why you know the words to “Auld Lange Syne” even if you don’t know the meaning. The song, which is about remembering friends from the past and not letting those times be forgotten actually has nothing to do with the holidays but is a perfect example Burns’ work. He celebrated life, love, friendship and drink all with humor and sympathy. His legacy is writ all over Scottish culture. Bobby Burns is as distinctly Scottish as the countries whisky.
Ninety years later, on the opposite side of Scotland, another farmer was setting out to form his own legacy in a distinctly Scottish way: by quitting his job. William Grant had just quit his job as a bookkeeper at the Mortlach Distillery and purchased the land and equipment to start his own distillery. On Christmas day in 1887 the first whisky flowed from the still of the Glenfiddich distillery. Glenfiddich essentially created the Single Malt category in the 60’s and 70’s, often using ads that created a cult of personality of around the whisky and that of Sandy Grant Gordon, William’s great grandson. The company has always been incredibly savvy and it’s no wonder that they are the number one selling single malt in the world.
But when you are that large its hard to say that you truly have a cult following. That status today falls to Glenfiddich’s younger distillery sibling, Balvenie. Founded by William Grant a mere five years after Glenfiddich, Balvenie has always been the more experimental of the children. Balvenie is still 100% traditionally floor malted, and just like Glenfiddich they still have a Coppersmith and Coopers on site on site to keep the whole process in house. But I know people who would never touch a bottle of Glenfiddich perk right up at the mere mention of Balvenie, especially if we’re talking about the 14 year old Caribbean Cask.
The Caribbean Cask is a 14 year old single malt that has been aged in traditional oak casks, primarily ex-Bourbon, and then finished in casks that once held Caribbean Rum. These rum casks are American Oak casks that have been filled with a blend of West Indian Rums crafted by Malt Master David Stewart. Once Stewart deems the casks to be correctly seasoned the rum is dumped and the 14 year old malt whisky is added to receive its finishing touches. How long exactly is a “finish’? Well, until it’s finished, but generally about 6 months.
The result is a whisky that is massively vanilla and oaky with an evolving fruitiness and just an edge of the hobo funk that you find in truly great rums. It is flavorful without being overpowering and adds a sweetness that livens up that heavy malt that turns many people off of Scotch whisky. This whisky feels right at home in that ultimate of Burns Night celebrations: the Burns Supper.
Burns Suppers range from strenuously formal gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of drunkards and louts. I’ll give you one guess as to which category I fall into. Most end up right in the middle and will follow the time honored form which includes the eating of a traditional Scottish meal, the drinking of Scotch whisky, the Toast to the Lassies, the responding Toast to the Laddies, and the recitation of works by, about, and in the spirit of the Burns.
Tonight I will be providing you with the whisky, but my brother will be providing you with the poetry. I don’t know if he wrote his first poem after a lovelorn night at the tender age of 15, but he certainly pens a verse worthy of raising a glass:
For Wintergreen Gorge
Once, illegally, on a train track bridge,
We sat with a handle a whiskey and three
Water bottles a gin, and I watched a gall midge
Land on your cheek and watched you brush it free
with your hand. Now what’s the use in holding
When we can sip and we can sit with our
Laughter and the iron and the wood to
Water sinking? Your hands get lost in folding,
Smoothing, and re-creasing the small flower
On the hem of your dress, and then you lower
Your eyes to wonder what we could do.