AY night will see Scots everywhere donning kilts, eating offal and downing an awful lot of whisky for Burns’ Night Supper, the annual celebration of the Bard of Ayreshire, Robert Burns. Haggis – served with neeps (mashed turnip) and tatties (potatoes) – may be an acquired delicacy for some, but when washed down with liberal amounts of “the water of life” – as the Scots call their whisky – it can be sublime. But it’s worth getting the whisky right. The world of Scottish whisky is as varied as that of wine, and just as you wouldn’t want to serve a strong dessert wine with a starter, it’s worth knowing which drams work with different parts of the meal.
The first course of a Burns supper should be Cock-a-leekie, the chicken and leak soup that, traditionally, has prunes added for extra flavour. The aim with whisky pairing is to find malts that compliment the flavours of the food rather than contrast too strongly, and here you want something reflecting the broth’s lightness, that will also act as an aperitif – have it ready on the table when your guests arrive. Arthur Motley of Royal Mile Whiskies recommends the Arran 1996 Peacock (£38.95, www.royalmilewhiskies.com): “a light, citrus, vanillery dram that also gives you the opportunity to say Peacock-a-leekie.” The Scottish Bard would approve of that.
Then comes the grand moment itself, the serving of the haggis, which you can tuck into after an eight-verse recitation of Burns’s poem, Ode to a Haggis. Here your whisky can actually becomes part of the meal itself, since some like to pour the drink onto the haggis (others might call that a waste). “You’ll need something strong and smoky,” says Darren Rook of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, “and for this, Isla whiskies like Ardbeg and Laphroiag are perfect, since the peat-smoked barley used by the island’s distilleries adds extra richness and complexity that goes with the meatiness.” The Society’s No. 53.137 (£57.50, www.smws.co.uk – the Society never names the distilleries from which it acquires its limited, single cask malts) is a fine example. “It has a sweet creaminess that compliments the neeps and tatties before building to those spicy, smoky flavours,” says Rook.
For dessert, you might be eating Tipsy Laird (sherry trifle), Clutie Dumplings (fruit pudding wrapped in cloth) or – most traditionally – Cranachan, made from whipped cream, whisky, honey, raspberries and oatmeal. Jonathan Abarbanel, whisky sommelier at Trafalgar Square’s Scottish restaurant and bar Albannach, recommends a 12-year-old Balvenie (£34.23, www.royalmile whiskies.com). “It’s partially aged in a sherry cask and partially in a bourbon one, and has really fruity notes and vanilla creaminess that goes beautifully with desserts,” he says. Motley recommends trying something a little different – stick a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 (£31.95, www.royalmilewhiskies.com) in the freezer for a day or more, and serve it straight from the freezer. “It has that viscous character that you get with frozen vodka, and the sweet, honeyed flavour of the Dalwhinnie goes beautifully with the honey in the Cranachan.”
You’re not done yet though – there’s still the cheese to go, and big, tangy blue cheeses from Scotland like Dunsyre Blue are a classic match for the big, tangy Isla whiskies. Smokehead (£24.95, www.royalmilewhiskies.com) is just the kind of fiery, peaty number you’re after.