Why do the English celebrate Burns Night? My question in no way demeans the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns: we commemorate his birth more enthusiastically than that of our own national bard, and the reason is clear and amber. Scotch, particularly single malt – the oak-aged barley spirit from a single distillery – is now almost infinitely various, and if countries from Japan to the United States enthusiastically ferment and age grains including corn, rye and wheat, the Scotch industry remains as unflustered as Burns by a doggerel-spouting rival.
As it happens, Burns did have such a rival, although only one person ever took the rivalry seriously. William Topaz McGonagall never lacked self-belief, despite crafting such immortal works as “The Tay Bridge Disaster”, which commemorates an 1879 railway catastrophe and ends thus:
. . . your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.
Here, surely, is a man who truly merits a whisky-soaked celebration. Great poetry is its own intoxication, while writing of this sort, rather like the tragedy it commemorates, is a powerful reminder of the human fallibility that inspires many of us to drink.
Poor Wullie McGonagall was the grain whisky to Burns’s single malt. The former has its place and can be highly entertaining; the latter is intense and complex with very Scottish inflections. Even Burns’s name is an apt descriptor for a drink best taken with a “teardrop” of water, to lessen the fire and free the flavours. The industry has followed his example in burnishing the myth of Scotland, if frequently in a less poetic manner.
Glenmorangie has a distillery on the beautiful Dornoch Firth, an emblem on its bottle inspired by an eighth-century Pictish sculpture and, most recently, a 1990 special release beautifully crafted in spite of a terrible barley harvest the previous year. The whisky is great, rounded and fruity and makes an interesting comparison with the woodier 25-year-old limited edition that Lagavulin, off the opposite coast on the peaty island of Islay, has created to celebrate its bicentenary.
Scotch need not be so venerable. I recently tried and liked a lightly citrusy 12-year-old from Knockdhu distillery in Speyside called AnCnoc, although I can’t pronounce it.
I rather like McGonagall, even if he was both talentless and teetotal – unlike Burns, who indulged himself into an early grave. McGonagall was at least no hypocrite, while Burns fended off penury by becoming an excise officer, collecting whisky taxes and trying to apprehend the many smugglers who avoided paying any.
Life is an imperfect business, as Burns well knew, and it is this understanding, as well as our shared appreciation for the beverage he drank so freely and regulated so reluctantly, that inspires us to fete him each 25 January. In his honour, then, let us raise a dram, attack a haggis and leave him the last words:
Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?
Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 11 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge