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 passion as much as 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. Selecting, drinking and enjoying Scottish single malt whiskies is a stylish man’s pastime.
Think about it. Somewhere in Scotland, a real craftsman painstakingly distilled a malt whisky into a cask, loved and cared it for a year, matured it for three more and at the end of had produced a whisky that is unique…and probably marvellous. 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, there are ten suggestions below.
It’s nice to see how drinking Scottish Malt Whisky has grown in America in recent years.
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.
Dartington Whisky Tumbler
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.
So enjoy Burns Night.
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, honey and caramel flavour. It’s flavour is light and soft and lingers in the mouth without being overpowering. An easy malt to start with.
A fruity, malt, with a dry aromatic finish with just a hint of the sherry casks it was matured in. Blair Athol is pale, slightly spicy and has a minty bite to it. 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, leathery, minty whisky with a lot of bite. It attacks on the tongue and is a complex strong whisky and very full-bodied. The iodine and burnt toffee 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. It is a joyous, slightly mischievous malt, with a fruity aftertaste that creeps up on you. 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. This is good as an after-dinner malt, especially for brandy drinkers, it has the requisite heaviness.
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 briny taste in the mouth and a smoky aftertaste. The sweet smoothness of it will make you want more. 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, it has a strange taste of leather and burnt toast. 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. It bites, in a clean refreshing way. 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, heather and mint and salty sweet water. 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
If you want to get a working introduction to malts, 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.
David Stirk guide to Malt Whisky
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. Quite simply, a great experience.
The Whisky Exchange, London
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.
The "Sweet Spot", Whisky Exchange, London
This is the place to go if you want to explore Scotch malt whisky. The front of house team 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.
Milroy's suppliers of fine whisky to gentlemen connoisseurs
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.
As you may have surmised from the preceding description, Milroy’s are adept at helping beginners to the malt whisky world. I was in there a few days ago and they were helping a woman buy for a male friend, something they do very well.
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 called “expressions”. This means that they produce some very individual malts which are rare and often have an originality and finesse that makrs them out from the standard vintages.
A truly vast range of Malts at the Vintage House
Vintage House have small room where, behind glass, there are hundreds of malt whisky expressions. It is a browsers delight, though some of the prices may cause you to need a reviving dram. 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 about malt whisky.
Original Whisky's and great prices
They stock a wide range of malts and also stock some of the best books about malts. I particularly like the fact that they have older vintages of some of the more common malts. It gives one the ability to explore a particular malt in more detail.
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. Prices are very good here, very competitive.
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.
The bar at the Scotch Malt Whisky society
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
Drinking Whisky and listening to music
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:
From the Capitol years, when Frank Sinatra did some of his best work. Sad songs elegantly sung.
The jazzy blues
Frank Sinatra: The wee small hours of the morning
Immaculate romantic Bossa Nova. Slow, yearning, manly and sexy songs from the master at his peak.
Antonio Carlos Jobim: Stone Flower
Quietly atmospheric, intense and sensuous jazz. Never loud, always skirting the base rhythm, Micheal Brecker’s masterful sax draws you into his mood.
melancholy, soulful sax
Michael Brecker: Nearness of you: The Ballad Book
Enjoy Burns Night this year, my best wishes to you on the occasion.