It’s hard to ignore Robert Burns this month; the sentimentality of his “Auld Lang Syne” heralds January’s arrival, and Burns Night, on the 25th, nearly concludes it. He was the reigning voice of Scottish literature in the last half of the 18th century — a Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg all rolled into one — and though you probably don’t realize it, he’s the one who put some of those memorable literary lines in your head: “Auld Lang Syne” to be sure, but also “The best laid schemes of mice and men” and “O my luve’s like a red, red rose.”
On his birthday, Burns Night, Scottish societies, Tartan Clubs, groups of ex-pats and looser affiliations of Scotophiles gather for a Burns Supper. These vary from the extremely elegant and regimented to the raucous and fun, but all tend to follow the same script. There is the procession: first the bagpiper, followed by the haggis-bearing chef and, finally, the host or master of ceremonies. Some short introductory remarks are made and then the highlight of the evening: the recitation of Burns’ “Address tae a Haggis.” Dinner is served, more poems are read, and whiskey — Scotch whiskey — is drunk throughout.
As Burns is the National Poet of Scotland, haggis is its National Dish. It consists of chopped lamb (or sheep) offal, suet, oatmeal, onions and spices stuffed into the critter’s stomach and boiled. It may seem a hard thing to love, but it speaks to the nation’s hardy character (if not also its thrift), and the few times I’ve encountered the meal, I found it agreeable. I hear tell there are fast-food restaurants in Scotland that deep fry haggis and serve it with a side of fries. While this may seem like a case of gilding the lily, consider that the fried Mars bar is of Scottish invention, as are Scotch eggs.
Burns called English “the de’il’s tongue,” and wrote many of his poems and songs in a phonetic Scotch-English dialect that can make “Address tae a Haggis” problematic for the modern reader. The Internet is littered with modern “translations” — some better than others — and YouTube is a good source for home movies of various Burns Suppers — some worse than others. The poem is well worth the effort to work out, not only for its unapologetic you-are-what-you-eat nationalism, but also for its rhymes.
Which brings us back to Scotch whiskey. As a cocktail ingredient, Scotch is unapologetic and can be problematic (to say the least). Thus, there are relatively few drinks in the cocktail canon that feature it. Some are quite good, but to successfully deploy Scotch in a mixed drink, the most important thing to consider is which Scotch to use.
Conventional wisdom dictates that we should only use blended whiskey in our cocktails. They’re generally less assertive and idiosyncratic than their single-malt brethren, and therefore more genial and cooperative in cocktails — not to mention easier on the wallet. I dare you to be daring, though. If you have the extra cash, experiment with some of the single malts, take ’em out for a spin. The vast differences in flavor between single malts of equal quality (and expense) means they won’t always play their part the same way. For instance, a brutally peaty Islay Scotch (like Laphroaig) will behave badly in a Beadleston, but can work in a Rusty Nail; whereas a more nuanced Islay malt (say, Caol Ila), while still assertively peaty, makes for a playful Bobbie Burns.
The Rob Roy is probably the king of all Scotch drinks. The name references the Scottish Robin Hood, Rob Roy MacGregor, but more than likely commemorates a Broadway play of the same name from the 1890s. It’s basically a Manhattan made with Scotch instead of American whiskey, so it can be made dry (with French vermouth) or perfect (with both French and Italian vermouth).
[This is where things can get confusing, at least for me. I recently had the pleasure of sharing a dias with the lovable Gary Regan at the Top of the East, and let slip a boner of such magnitude that I have to set the record straight here and take my lumps. The Rob Roy was always meant to be made with sweet (a.k.a. Italian, a.k.a. red) vermouth and not dry (a.k.a. French, a.k.a. white) vermouth — a couple of 80-year-old cocktail books written by Brits and idiots notwithstanding.]
If you do add dry vermouth to Scotch (in equal parts), you get a Beadleston, named for a gentleman who sold a lot of beer to the old Waldorf Hotel and presumably drank these in the bar. This is a crisp and light drink in the key of Scotch, and so will require a gentler whiskey, like a blend.
Blood and Sand was a 1922 movie about bullfighting starring Rudolf Valentino, and once you see the color of this drink, you’ll see how aptly named it is. On paper, it looks like somebody randomly chose ingredients from a hat, but it works remarkably well. Cherry Heering, a deeply hued and rich Danish cherry liqueur, is easy enough to get in Maine. Accept no substitutes; other products just don’t have the complexity, and unless you make a lot of Singapore Slings, the bottle is a great value because it’ll be around awhile.
The Bobby Burns cocktail might not refer to the poet at all, but rather to yet another vendor to the old Waldorf. This one sold cigars and reportedly liked to spring for rounds of drinks. The literature abounds with variations both in the recipe and the name (Robbie Burns, Robert Burns, etc.). Some call for absinthe, some for Drambuie, but I’ll stick to the Benedictine version. If you feel like going the route of using a single malt in this one, feel free to loosen up your grip on the Benedictine when using a bigger, smokier whiskey.
The Rusty Nail is probably my favorite of the canonical Scotch drinks because of its utter simplicity and flexibility. Drambuie is a great home-bar staple for the same reason Cherry Heering is. It’s a sadly underutilized ingredient and will be around awhile unless you play with it. Almost any whiskey will work in a Rusty Nail, as the Drambuie-to-Scotch ratio can be tweaked to suit both your mood and the malt’s. I sometimes turn this one completely inside out, reversing the ratio so it’s mostly Drambuie with a smattering of Scotch when I’m feeling like a wee “cow’ring, tim’rous beastie.”
Dash of orange bitters
2 oz. Scotch whiskey
1 oz. (or to taste) sweet vermouth
Stir with ice until well chilled and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with cherry or a lemon twist.
2 dashes orange bitters
1 1/2 oz. Scotch
1 1/2 oz. dry vermouth
Stir with ice until well chilled and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Blood and Sand
3/4 oz. Scotch whiskey
3/4 oz. Cherry Heering
3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. orange juice
Shake with ice until well chilled and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
2 oz. Scotch whiskey
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1/4 oz. Benedictine (or to taste)
Shake with ice until well chilled and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Stir with ice and strain into an ice-filled tumbler. Or, alternatively, pour enough Scotch into an ice-filled tumbler and top with enough Drambuie.
— John Myers