Like many Englishmen of Scottish descent, I will be celebrating Burns Night with a good Scotch malt whisky. Here is a short guide to both Burns Night and 10 malt whiskies that I favour. At the end of the post I have added 5 specialist shops where you can buy good Scotch whisky. If you cannot get to these stores, have no fear, they have excellent web sales services, as detailed below.
Burns Night is a celebration of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, and takes place on the 25th January. Born in 1759 and died in 1796, Burns was the poet of the Scottish countryside and its people and no man did more to create the romantic vision of Scotland that we have today. Rabbie Burns had a hard and difficult life. He was of a hard-working but poor family and hunger and sickness oppressed him all of his life. I can only admire a man who endured all that and still managed to produce poetry, journals and commentaries. He was also a man who really enjoyed bedding the ladies, as you will find out if you read any of his biographies. For those of us who do not know his work well he wrote “Auld Lang Syne” with which we sing in the New Year. We remember him for his poetry and the Scots are rightly proud of him.
Burns Night Suppers
A Burns Night supper is a convivial, yet ceremonial gathering of friends. There are several stages in the evening, as follows:
In Scotland the guests are often piped into the room or hall by a live piper. However at most suppers the guests are piped in to recorded traditional Scotch music.
The host or chairman makes a short speech of welcome and toasts Robert Burns (Scotch whisky, of course).
The party then recite the “Selkirk Grace”, a short grace before dinner, which Burns is reputed to have written. The text is below:
Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.
The traditional Haggis is then piped to the table and Burn’s poem”To a Haggis” is recited, to a whisky toast.
Supper should then commence and further entertainment can added as the meal proceeds. Typically this is recitations of Burns poems, playing traditional Scottish songs and of course more toasts, which will of course consume more whisky.
Traditionally, a Burns Supper ends with a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”
Scotch Malt Whisky
Malt Whisky is one of a man’s great joys. One of the marks of a stylish man is that he knows enough about malt whisky to get by in company. The varieties of taste, the interesting and varied histories and the individual character of each whisky make this a fit subject of interest for a worldly man.
Think about it. Somewhere in Scotland, a real craftsman painstakingly distilled a malt whisky into a cask, loved and cared it for a year and at the end of had produced a whisky that is unique,…and probably beautiful. And you are going to buy it for a few pounds (or dollars). Drinking malt is a fine luxury experience and a cheap one at that. It is easy to start, find one you like and go from there.
Drinking malt whisky
When it comes to drinking malt whisky I am a classicist. I like my malt in a whisky tumbler with just a drop of water. And I mean a drop, just enough to release the aromatics and oils of the malt, to bring out the flavour. I cradle the tumbler of whisky in my hand until it is at body warmth and the whisky is warmed. Perfection.
The only other thing you need is a good glass. Here is my favourite whisky tumbler, from my favourite glassmaker, Dartington.
The glass is here. If you are a romantic man, buy two. Your best girl will be bowled over by the loving symbolism of it, trust me.
Ten Malts and where to buy them
Here are ten malts I like. They are a good range, from the light to the heavy, in no particular order. I have not added the year of distillation because this is a short post, but my usual experience with malts is the older the better. The gentlemen at the stores listed below will advise you on years and “expressions” as particular distillations are called.
Isle of Jura
One of my favourites and a favourite of guests at my house. By the standards of Islay whiskies, of which this is one, Jura is very lightly peated. Still there is enough smoky peat flavour to give Jura a slightly salt-sweet flavour. A good malt for beginners because even the young distillations are quite smooth, with a slightly malty, caramel flavour. It is light and lingers in the mouth without being overpowering.
A fruity, malt, with a dry aromatic finish with just a hint of the sherry casks it was matured in. Though that may sound a little light, it isn’t and Blair Athol has a strong finish. Blair Athol was the malt of choice of my father, it was his “sociable” malt that he drank with other men. If was drinking in family, he would drink Ardbeg, which is a very different proposition (see Ardbeg below). Blair Athol is beloved by the Japanese, though I do not know why this malt in particular. However it does account for why there is not a lot of this whisky available and its price is a little higher as a result. A “fine” malt whisky, which you could offer as an after-dinner drink to non-whisky drinkers.
A bit of an acquired taste, Glen Ord is a malty, heathery, minty whisky with a lot of bite. It attacks on the tongue and is a complex strong whisky and very full-bodied. The aftertaste alone lets you know you have a real whisky on your hands. But stick with it and it has some very fine flavours in it. Not a whisky for everyday but for special occasions. For me, there are times when I want to be alone in my own company. Those are the times I drink Glen Ord and I really enjoy it.
I do not know what it is about Laphroaig but it inspires the most fanatical loyalty. Men swear by it. In an earlier stage of my life I would drink no other malt and was forever singing its virtues. However I am recovered now…as long as I am not offered any.
Soft and fruity mixed in with the salt taste of the sea, Laphroaig charms the tongue and is a sweet and peaty taste. It has a loose, slightly oily texture and has a slight salty, peaty aftertaste. Though that may not sound attractive, combined with its refined and complex flavours it is a wonderful taste. I think it bypasses the thinking brain and goes from taste-buds direct to pleasure centres. Try it and, after a few, you are likely to find it addictive.
Glenmorangie is the best-selling malt in the world, so I do not have too much to add. I will say that it’s light, heathery taste makes it a good drinking whisky. I like it as a malt for pubs and bars and a very good one.
Bring on the big guns. Oban is heavily perfumed, smelling of honey, caramel and malt. It is sweet, big in the mouth and very distinctive. Once you have tried Oban you will remember it. In my experience this is a good whisky to give to men as an after-dinner drink. It looks like a malt whisky should and has a dark brown colour that goes perfectly with its dense, firm taste.
Well, if Laphroaig is addictive, Bowmore is more-ish, in that “just one more…” way. Sweet, malty and soft, smelling slightly of sugar and spirits, it is incredibly easy to drink. It has a full taste in the mouth and a smoky aftertaste. A bottle of Bowmore does not last any time at all in the Van Rijn household, it is one of our all-time favourites. If you are going to give it to friends, make sure you have enough for refills.
Whisky monster! The perfume of Ardbeg hits you as soon as you pop the cork. A sweet peaty smell that will permeate the air. This is an immensely peaty whisky with a tang of leather, a slight taste of baked bread and an underlying sweetness. The taste of it will fill your mouth up. I am really not sure how to characterize this whisky but somehow it has become a favourite of mine. A favourite in the Van Rijn family and a big drink for those times when you want or need one.
Macallan has been called the writer’s malt, so it is appropriate that I mention it here. The English writer Kingsley Amis, used to say that he kept a bottle by his typewriter and took a nip for inspiration at regular intervals. However Mr Amis was a great storyteller, so this may simply be apt invention. For a long time Macallan was also considered the connoisseur’s malt, so it was (purportedly) the drink of the man of style. Writers looking for a short-hand indicator of style would have their character drink Macallan.
Macallan is a strong, rich silky mouthful with great tastes of toffee, sherry, brown sugar. It is full-bodied and lingers in the mouth for a long time. I always think of Macallan as the taste of celebration and feel very honoured when I am served it by friends.
Tastes fruity, fresh and dry, with the scent of plants and a fiery whisky taste that is mellower in older vintages. Wonderful light, complex, fresh taste. A reviver, morale booster, glad-to-be-alive drink. For launching ventures, spiting in the eye of your enemy, embarking on passionate love affairs. True style in a glass. Currently my favourite whisky.
A Scotch malt whisky book
David Stirk’s book is a well-illustrated guide to Scotch malt whisky. He explains the process, varieties of whisky and how they differ. He lists all the whiskys. Great for the novice, maybe a little too simple for anyone else. A good first reference and I am indebted to him for his list and guide to the actual distilleries.
Where to buy Malt Whisky in London
In recent years, the number of specialist stores selling Scotch malt whisky in London has increased. More power to their elbow, I say. Here are five I like.
The Whisky Exchange
The Whisky Exchange is in Vinopolis, the wine museum, near London Bridge, in London. I had never been there until recently and was wholly unprepared for what a great experience it was going to be.
The Whisky Exchange must have the largest floor space of any whisky store in London. They have yard upon yard of shelves of malt whisky. There is a “sweet spot” within the store on which it is possible to stand and your entire field of vision is filled with malt whisky!
Here is the photo to prove it.
While I was gazing at whisky heaven, I was approached by Matt Swinfen, one of the staff at Whisky Exchange to see if I needed any help. When I said no he said: “Enjoy the wallpaper….” Superb line! Had to quote him.
This is the place to go if you want to explore Scotch malt whisky. The front of house “team” (Matt Swinfen and Duncan Ross) are walking encyclopaedias of malt, being both impressive and very helpful. Their motto is “we try to give the type of service you got thirty years ago”. For my America readers, one of the things they do well is ship malts to overseas clients, a service in which they have lots of experience. For my city readers, this is the perfect antidote to the depressed markets. From your patch, the Whisky Exchange is five minutes from you, across London Bridge. Go see.
The Whisky Exchange does so many things exceptionally well, see their website for the list of services.
The Whisky Exchange
1 Bank End, London Bridge, London SE1 9BU
Tel: +44 (0)20 7403 8688
Milroys of Soho
Milroys is a London institution and is where I learnt about malt whisky. I owe these gentlemen a huge debt of gratitude for their knowledge, quiet service and sheer style. Over the years their advice has been vital to me, it was Milroy’s who first advised me to buy Blair Athol for my father, just one of their many pieces of wise counsel. My wife buys gifts for me from them and likes their service and their suggestions a great deal.
I love this shop, for me it is part and parcel of having style. Every man should visit Milroy’s once, because to do so gives you an immediate understanding of connoisseurship and English style. If you are visiting England then Milroys is worth a visit, it is part of the true English experience.
Like the Whisky Exchange, Millroys have a lot of experience in shipping to other countries. But what makes Milroys so wonderful is the service. If you are a novice at malt whisky, need advice, then you could not be in safer hands. If you are at all knowledgeable then you probably go to Milroys for the quiet pleasure of doing so.
The manager at Milroys is Phillip Kirk and he is both hospitable and a wizard of whisky. Every “wee dram” that he has given me to sample has proven to be from magnificent whiskies.
Milroys website also sells their malts. It excels partly because of their expert tasting notes. Have a look see.
Milroys of Soho
3 Greek Street, London, W1D 4NX
Tel: +44 (0)20 7437 2385
The Vintage House
Another London tradition and one of the finest malt whisky collections in London. Vintage House have an extensive collection of malts bottled by individual bottlers. Independents bottle single casks of years of their choosing. This means that they produce some very individual malts which are rare and have a very individual taste.
Vintage House have small room where, behind glass, there are hundreds of malt whiskies. It is a browsers delight. The staff at Vintage house provide a knowledgeable, breezily cheerful service and can tell you all you want to know about malt. They have over 1,400 malts in stock, so you are sure to find one you want.
The Vintage House
42 Old Compto Street, Soho, London W1D 4LR
Tel: +44 (0)20 7437 2592
Royal Mile Whiskies
Royal Mile are an Edinburgh company, with a shop in London. They won Whisky Retailer of the Year 2003, 2004 and 2006, and have established quite a track record. They offer smart, thoughtful service and whenever I am in the store I see them patiently advising newcomers to malt whisky.
They stock a wide range of malts and also stock some of the best books about malts. Their tastings are very good, often being cleverly themed. Their most recent tasting was of whiskies from distilleries that have closed, with the opportunity to buy these now rare whiskies.
Royal Mile Whiskies
3 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE
Tel: +44 (0)20 7436 4763
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
If you enjoy Scotch malt whisky, then this is the club for you. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is both a group of like-minded enthusiasts and an independent bottler of malt whisky. They bottle and sell single-cask single-malt whiskies from over a 120 distilleries at remarkably competitive prices. They have club-houses in Edinburgh and London (the London clubhouse is pictured) where members can buy a dram of any of the society’s whiskies or indeed buy a bottle. They have restaurant, which sells wine to accompany dinner, as well as malt.
Membership is £100.00 per year, which gets you a presentation case of malts, membership in London and Edinburgh, the right to buy their exclusive whiskies, the socity’s magazine and lots more. This is a great price and to be honest, I think they are giving it away.
The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society
19 Greville Street, off Bleeding Heart Yard, London EC1N 8SQ
Tel: +44 (0)20 7831 4447
I like drinking whisky late at night. Music on, low, lights likewise. Something sophisticated, melodic and soulful playing quietly. Here are three of my choices:
Drinking Scotch malt whisky
There is one other thing I know about malt whisky. Women who drink it are sexy. I drink malt with my wife, who has developed a taste for malt under my tutelage. We drink together late at night, in the surroundings I described above, music playing, lights low. We drink after dinner parties, returning from engagements, celebrating the end of a long day.
It is one of the times that we share together and the whisky makes it special. We have our own malt classes. Hers is cut Edinburgh crystal, which sparkles with a golden glow, as the whisky catches the candlelight. It is beautiful, as she is. Mine is a big, chunky heavy modern tumbler, a man’s glass. All very appropriate.
I look at her, long legs, long dark hair, green eyes, that slightly lopsided suggestion of a smile. She sits there, Ferretti frock, killer heels, drinking whisky, looking at me over the top of the glass, with those emerald eyes. She is very beautiful and these are some of the times I truly feel blessed.
Enjoy Burns Night.
Copyright © 2009 What Makes a Man. All Rights Reserved