By Susannah Skiver Barton
Longtime lovers of Scotch whisky are usually familiar with Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. The 18th-century bard’s use of the Scots dialect in his compositions made him one of the country’s most beloved figures, and every January 25th, millions of people in Scotland and throughout the world celebrate his birthday with feasting, poetry, and whisky.
As Scotch whisky has grown in popularity in recent years, more people in the U.S. are hosting a Burns Night supper. Presuming you can choose your own Scotch (and if you can’t, consult our Buying Guide), here’s how to celebrate the night in style.
What to Eat
No Burns supper is complete without haggis, that humble and unnerving native dish traditionally made from offal and oatmeal cooked in the animal’s stomach. At many Burns Night events, the haggis is led in with live bagpipe music and placed before the host, who then recites Burns’ “Address to a Haggis,” dramatically plunging in a large knife at the lines, “An cut you up wi ready slight/Trenching your gushing entrails bright.”
It’s impossible to track down authentic Scottish haggis in the U.S., since the law prohibits the sale and consumption of certain, ahem, ingredients. But Scottish Gourmet USA makes a version that passes credibly for the real thing, available in 1- and 5-pound versions, as well as a “presentation haggis” that’s sure to wow your dinner guests. As a former resident of Scotland who enjoys the dish quite a bit, I can personally vouch for this domestic version. I serve it the traditional way, with mashed tatties (potatoes) and bashed neeps (turnips—the large yellow ones), and a very satisfying whisky cream sauce, made by heating a about a quarter cup of scotch until it’s reduced by half, then whisking in a cup of heavy cream, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper.
Since the evening celebrates Scotland’s national poet, the entertainment revolves around his oeuvre, delivered in the form of toasts. First, there’s a toast to Burns’ immortal memory, which typically includes the recitation of one of his poems. Next, one man offers an Address to the Lassies—a light-hearted and often amusing speech that was traditionally used to thank the women who prepared the meal. One woman then gives a Reply to the Laddies, often responding cheekily to specific points raised in the previous speech. Anyone who wishes can recite a Burns poem or lead the party in a song—you can find Burns’ complete works here. At the end of each toast, guests quaff deeply—so be sure to have plenty of extra whisky on hand.
What to Wear
There’s no uniform required at these events, but if you have the chance to wear a kilt, take it. Kilts are comfortable; they draw the attention of others in the room; and they lend a certain gravitas to the occasion. A kilt-wearer often seems more interesting and enigmatic to other people.
For the month of January, you can rent a kilt with all the requisite accessories starting around $130, plus shipping, from Kilt Rental USA. There are also any number of other online shops ready to kit you out. Like a tuxedo, a kilt is tailored to measure—no need to worry about it falling off!
As the evening winds down, you’ll probably want one more whisky and something sweet to pair with it. Or you could combine the two with whisky-filled chocolates, like these made by L.A.Burdick specifically for Burns Night and filled with Macallan, Talisker, Springbank, Highland Park, and Lagavulin, or these from Compartés, filled with ganache that’s infused with Macallan 18.
And if you do nothing else on January 25th, be sure to raise a dram to the man who gave us these immortal lines,
“‘Life’s cares they are comforts’—a maxim laid down
By the Bard, what d’ye call him, that wore the black gown;
And faith I agree with th’ old prig to a hair,
For a big-belly’d bottle’s a heav’n of a care.”
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