I dried out for January, once. I’d recently left my marriage and, as often happens with enthusiastic drinkers in distress, my fondness for a good glass and a good time had blurred into a thirst with nothing good about it. I fled to friends in Cambodia for a delightful, sunny Christmas, then headed to a nearby island for New Year. So, it turned out, did every party-loving lowlife in the country. Midnight found me dancing, reluctantly, with a drunk policeman: his Kalashnikov made turning him down seem unwise.
There would never be a better moment for me to give alcohol a rest.
And, thank goodness, there never has been. The whole experience was excruciating, and glummest of all was 25 January. The birthday of the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns is a fine excuse to blend good Scotch, strong words and the peculiar northern fare so friendly to both. In his “Address to a Haggis”, on that puzzlingly appealing amalgam of suet, oatmeal and offal wrapped in a sheep’s stomach, Burns claimed it merited a grace as long as his arm. It’s eight verses, so no wonder he rarely went short of a drink.
Trust the Scots to find a reason to celebrate the greyest and most cheerless portion of the year. Burns deserves our gratitude, although I will not be taking his advice to spurn the grape: I’ve attended Burns suppers entirely watered by whisky, and the aftermath risked causing a relapse into teetotalism. I will, however, be revisiting some of 2018’s most pleasurable single malts: Craigellachie, next door to Macallan’s amazing new Speyside distillery, and The much-loved Macallan itself; Old Pulteney from northern Wick; and Talisker special edition Port Ruighe, aged in port casks, sweeter and peatier than the Skye distillery’s usual dram. Or Raasay, which claims to be the remote Hebridean island’s first legal distillery – a distinction Burns, drinking in an era of Highland smugglers and despised excisemen, might have appreciated.
I celebrated last Burns Night in icy Montreal: whisky may be bad for heartache but it remains an excellent remedy for the pain caused by exposing one’s cheeks to minus 20 degrees. Canada has many Scots descendants, but Quebec has different forebears, ones whose poets are more likely, as Burns scornfully wrote, to raise a fracas “Bout vines, an’ wines, an’ drucken Bacchus”. Given the climate, we should surely have drunk Shackleton, a dangerously pleasant blended whisky created in homage to the Antarctic explorer.
Blends are less prestigious than single malts, although Johnnie Walker Blue Label, as hard on the wallet as it is silky on the palate, surely calls that hierarchy into question. Anyway purity, when honouring Burns, seems misplaced. His golden tongue frequently ran away with him, which is how a Dumfries barmaid came to bear him a daughter just nine days before Mrs Burns gave birth to a son.
His professional loyalties also conflicted: the author of a song celebrating the Devil making off with the exciseman became an exciseman himself, and died at 37, a victim, perhaps, of irreconcilable inner differences. We all have our antagonisms, the tug between pleasure and duty, love and indifference, self-knowledge and oblivion. That’s why dry January exists, and why poetry does, and why I’ll spend this month with my long arm raised in a toast, respectful but unregretful, to both.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain