Why does the typical American know about -- if not celebrate -- St. Patrick's Day but not Robert Burns Day? For the same reason that New York City has hundreds of Irish bars but only one Scottish pub. In other words, I have no idea. Or as a Scot might say, I cannae tell ye.
Robert Burns Day, for the uninitiated, commemorates the birthday (on January 25th) of Scotland's greatest poet, songwriter and raconteur -- their 18th century version of Bob Dylan. You may think you don't know Burns' work, but "Tam O'Shanter" and "My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose" remain well-known worldwide to this day. And every New Year's Eve, there's a good chance you're mumbling along to the incomprehensible-to-Americans lyrics of "Auld Lang Syne," which is the second most sung tune in the States after "Happy Birthday."
There's never really a bad day to drink single malt Scotch whisky, but Burns Day is extra apropos. To prepare for the blessed day, I went to see Andrew Weir, who's working double-duty this month. He's not only the face and voice of Robert Burns for the British National Tourism Office, but he's also one of the "ambassadors" for Balvenie single malt Scotch.
We met at St. Andrews Restaurant & Bar in midtown Manhattan, a lonely island of Scottishness in a sea of Blarney Stone pubs. Andrew came armed with several variations of Balvenie and plenty of information about Robert Burns. I came thirsty and ready to learn.
I'd heard of Balvenie but didn't know much about it, and I'd never tried it. I was surprised to learn that it's the fourth largest selling single malt in the States, despite a minimum of advertising. It's a Speyside malt -- Speyside being the most popular area for distilling Scotch whisky (no "e" if it's Scotch) in the country. The area produces whiskies like the uber-popular Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, which are more mellow, rounded and palatable to novices than, for instance, peat-heavy Islay malts like Lagavulin.
I tried about half a dozen different Balvenies, and while each had its own unique characteristics, what they all had in common was their easiness. I don't mean they're simple or one-dimensional; they're as rich and complex as any single-malt out there. But without exception, they were all easy to drink. If you're looking for super-annuated firewater, or a whisky that'll make you feel like you stuck your mouth in a peat bog (and don't get me wrong, I love those kinds of whisky, too), look elsewhere. Balvenie whiskies are smooth and elegant as any single-malt I've ever had.
In recent years Balvenie has been tinkering with their 17-year-old Scotches -- after the traditional aging in American oak casks, they're "finished" in different ways.
My favorite of the bunch was the 17-year-old Rum Cask, which, as you might imagine, is finished in casks that once held Jamaican rum. According to Andy, this is "quite an eccentric, quirky thing to do with Scotch." No mind. This sucker improbably combines the traditional vanilla, honey and spice notes of the whisky with traces of tropical fruits and brown sugar that come from the rum. As Andy put it, "It's like a Bananas Foster... the kind of whisky you could drink a lot of." I'll drink to that. If you don't like Scotch, this may well convert you.
As I sipped, Andy schooled me on the ins and outs of Burns Suppers, which have, since shortly after Burns' death in 1796 at the age of 37, been the traditional way to celebrate Burns Day. "A Burns Supper, traditionally, you'll have the soup, the haggis course, a steak pie, and then trifle." The proceedings start with the designated speaker reciting the Selkirk Grace, which was written by Burns, of course: "Some hae meat and cannot eat. Some cannot eat that want it: But we hae meat and we can eat, Sae let the Lord be thankit."
At this point, a waiter came in with two dishes of something that looked a little like shepherd's pie. "I took the liberty of ordering you some haggis," Andy said. "This is haggis, neeps and tatties -- neeps are turnips, and tatties are potatoes. This is the traditional food eaten for Burns Suppers." I'd heard some things about haggis before, most of them scary. But since this haggis wasn't being served the traditional way -- out of the stomach of a sheep -- I figured I'd give it a try. And indeed, it was good. When I asked him what was in it, he would only say, "If you can eat a New York hot dog and not ask what's in it, you can eat haggis." And that was good enough for me, especially when he drizzled a little Balvenie on top. The whisky blended perfectly with the pungent, meaty flavor of the haggis. These Scots know what they're doing.
The designated speaker at a Burns Supper has to "address the haggis" by reciting the eight-verse Burns opus "To A Haggis" before the food is served. I won't reprint the entire poem here, but it concludes thusly:
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies:
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!
At which point the haggis is cut open with a great flourish and dinner is served. Sounds awesome, right? "I've addressed the haggis all over the world," Andy said, "but most recently I've addressed the haggis at Sean Connery's private dinner. But he forgot to order the haggis, so we had to call up and get this bar to ship it in a taxi!"
While Andy wowed me with tales of Burns, he also poured me more samples of Balvenie. Their latest creation, the 17-year-old Madeira Cask, is finished for five months in, you guessed it, Madeira wine casks, providing gorgeous notes of dates, raisins and cinammon. Their biggest seller, the 12-year-old Doublewood, is so named because it's finished in Spanish oak sherry casks. It's meant to be an entry point of sorts (both in flavor and price) for single-malt drinkers, but as a veteran of many a dram of Scotch whisky, I can attest that experienced Scotch drinkers will enjoy its harmonious blend of sweet, spicy and earthy as well.
Andy's own favorite is the 21-year-old PortWood, a high-proof (47.2%) whisky that's finished in port casks. He rhapsodized, "This is the whisky that, if I was only allowed to take one bottle to a desert island, this would be it. [The nose] is almost like walking in the warehouse. I always tell people, this is the closest I can get them to the warehouse without buying them an airline ticket." It's a little peppery, a little fruity, a little nutty, and a whole lotta good, with delicious vanilla and butterscotch notes.
There were more Scotches to try, but time was running short. I had to go home and sleep off all the whisky I'd ingested. Andy had to get ready to fly to Houston for a Burns Supper ("I'm gonna go down there and show 'em what it's all about"), and continue spreading the Burns gospel across the globe. Over the next few weeks, there'll be Burns Suppers in L.A., New Jersey, Chicago, Atlanta and Milwaukee, as well as far-flung locales like Singapore, Thailand and Russia.
Outside of Scotland, of course, Robert Burns Day still has a long way to go to match the popularity of St. Patrick's Day, also known in New York City as "the day high schoolers from Long Island and New Jersey come to town to drink green beer and puke it up all over the street." Andy notes, "I think what the Irish have done with St. Patrick's Day is incredible, and I take my hat off to 'em." He does, however, have a small bone to pick: "They're all playing Scottish bagpipes, and playing Scottish tunes, wearing kilts with Scottish tartans. This is the perception of Irish culture, when a lot of it is really Scottish."
Well, he's certainly converted one New Yorker. If, this Monday, you see a Jewish guy wearing a kilt, with a glass of Balvenie in one hand and a book of Robert Burns' poems in the other, reciting lines like "Some ca' the pleugh, some herd, some tentie rin/A cannie errand to a neebor town" in a lousy Scottish accent, be sure to wish me a happy Burns Day and a guid eenin.