Gie him strong drink until he winkThose are the opening lines of the poem Scotch Drink by Robbie Burns, a poem in praise of the water of life, whiskey. Those of you who have ever been to a Burns’ supper, visited Scotland or, to cast the net wider still, met a Scotsman, will know that a love of whisky is ubiquitous to the Scots, and Burns was no exception. In this blog, I want to give you a rundown on Whisky and Burns’ relationship with it. First, though, what is whisky? (In Scotland it is customarily spelled without the ‘e’, unlike our Irish cousins). Whisky is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting a mash of malted barley, which is then distilled and aged in wooden casks. In Scotland, whisky must be aged in wood for a minimum of three years before with can be known as Scotch Whisky. Isn't this just the sort of knowledge you would love to impress your friends with at any party? The name Whisky is derived from the gaelic uisge-beatha which is, in turn a translation of the latin aqua vitae meaning water of life. In this way, the name of Scotland’s national drink – not Irn Bru- has a lot in common with the names of drinks from France (Eau de Vie), Italy (acquavite) and Scandinavia (Akvavit) among others.
Burns and WhiskyBurns is said to have first come into contact with whisky when he was 22, something of a late bloomer by today’s standards. Burns was sent to Irvine to learn flax-combing and it was here that the amber liquid first passed his lips. Ever since that first fateful sip, whisky and Burns have been intrinsically linked, even though he would go on to become an excise-man, the mortal enemy of the whisky producer. Burns’ attitude to alcohol seems to have been fairly agreeable but whether he was a raucous as his reputation would have you believe is up for debate. What is certain is that something about whisky stirred his imagination and he wrote many poems on the subject from John Barleycorn to the aforementioned Scotch Drink as well as The Author’s Earnest cry and Prayer which ends with the famous lines Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither! Take aff your dram! It is also clear Seeing as whisky is so very likely to play a role in your Burns’ night celebrations, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a quick guide to Scottish Whisky – something I become well acquainted with myself at this time of year.
Scottish Whisky RegionsThere are five whisky regions in Scotland, namely; Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.
Highland whiskyKnown for being full bodied with a good dose of peat and smoke. This definition is a generalisation as the region is so large there is a degree of variety between the flavours of different Highalnd whiskies.
Lowland whiskiesThese tend to be a lot smoother than their highland counterparts. The tradition in the lowlands was to triple distill the whisky which accounts for the smoothness of the dram (now there is a good line for impressing your mates at a Burns night).
Islay WhiskyIslay is the southernmost of the Hebrides and is extremely exposed to the ocean spray, this say the experts, gives the whiskies from this island a definite taste of the sea. As well as tasting of the sea, the malts from Islay are known for being super-peaty and smoky, not a region for the unseasoned whisky drinker.
Speyside whiskyDistillers in this area use water from the river Spey to create whiskies with sweeter and more complex flavours than those favoured in other regions. Speyside boasts the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland.
Campbeltown WhiskyCampbeltown used to be the centre for whiskey production in Scotland but now there are only three distilleries in this area. The characteristics of Campbeltown whiskies are a touch of peat and a slightly briny taste. Aside from the above mentioned areas, there are also distilleries on some of Scotland’s other island, and although not officially recognised as a region the Island ‘s produce a product similar to Islay whisky but significantly milder.
Remember, if you are going to enjoy a dram or two or three at your Burns’ night celebration, you will need to look the part so order your finery now and book that taxi or pick straws for the designated driver now.