The annual celebration that elevates the simple act of tucking into haggis, neeps & tatties – washed down with a Scotch – into an extravaganza of a marketing ploy & cultural highlight for Scotland, it’s people, the place and above all – the whisky.
Rabbie Burns image adorns many a bottle, T-shirt, mug or poster as ubiquitously as Che Guevara’s does in other places. Burns predates Guevara’s rebellious nature by supporting the French Revolution of 1789.
Both have become re-invented & re-packaged as popular icons – often disassociated from the narrative of their actual lived lives.
Burns Nectar Single Malt is just one manifestation of this trend.
A sweet honeyed aroma on the nose.
There’s a touch of character on the palate however.
Smooth & sweet to begin with, it dries out midway displaying some dark fruitiness & a touch of tobacco.
A playful prickly tingling is left on the finish.
Rabbie Burns eked out a living as an impoverished farmer, later elevating his earnings as a tax collector.
His fame as a poet mainly came posthumously – and continues to rise today.
A.D. Rattray are an independent bottler of fine standing in Scotland.
They happen to have a lovely Whisky Shop on the main access route – A77 – to & from the Irish ferry terminals at Stranraer & Cairnryan that I often use to cross the water.
Oddly enough on my last trip – January 2018 – it was the first time in well over a decade using this route I encountered armed police, a passport check, a personal check as well as a vehicle check – all for an internal crossing?
Brexit changes indeed.
The Whisky Shop itself is a treasure trove of whisky, some gins & local beers too. Predominately Scotch it has to be said – although there is a sprinkling of world whisky. There are also tasting classes, rare single casks to be had, a small museum and more to attract you in and delay your journey.
But as I was driving – I made do with an elegantly packaged & well presented 5 pack A.D. Rattray miniature selection.
Nearly a year later I eventually managed to sample them if only to mark Rabbie Burns Night – who happened to live nearby.
The standard Bank Note 5 Year Old Blend at 43% struck me as just being that – standard. Pleasant enough with it – but no stand out qualities to pull me in. I do like the label however.
Next up was the Stronachie Highland Single Malt 10 Year Old – also at 43%. With this A.D. Rattray branded malt you actually get the distillery of origin – Benrinnes in this case – unlike the blended offering.
Now 10 year old malts these days are often considered entry level – and I’m afraid my tasting experience only concurred with this hypothesis.
Smooth, easy drinking, well balanced butterscotch, honey & vanilla – just not enough character or oomph for my tastes.
Meanwhile the Stronachie 18 – also Benrinnes sourced but with a slightly higher 46% ABV – gained some lovely dry woody tannins from the extra years in maturation. I was pulled in with it’s suitably more complex , characterful & to my palate anyway – a much more appealing dram.
The next bottle – at least from the label – promised something special.
A single grain whisky from a closed distillery – Cambus – matured for no less than 26 years & presented at 59.9% with no chill filtering nor added colouring. – kind of suggests the other bottlings perhaps had added e150 or chill filtering as it wasn’t stated on their labels?
Part of the A.D. Rattray Cask Collection – which changes regularly – I was very happy to try this single grain.
It’s a category of whisky many people dismiss – which is fine – all the more for me to enjoy!
It’s fresh, it’s lively, it’s full of flavour, it’s got character, it’s got strength, it’s got lucious drying tannins & velvety vanilla which just explode in the mouth.
A wonderful whisky.
The final miniature was Cask Islay – an non aged statement (NAS) non disclosed distillery single malt presented at 46%.
Now normally an Islay influenced dram floats my boat – but not this sweet peat. I think I prefer dry ashiness myself.
Perhaps the cask strength offering of earlier had influenced my findings. But I had cleansed my palate after each sample, left a gap in-between & then re-sampled later. All to no avail.
The Single Grain Cambus 26 Year Old is clearly my top of the pile – a stunning drop.
It’s nearing Burns Night – 25th January – so I thought a bit of Scotch would be in order.
You could say Rabbie Burns is one of the first ‘celebrity’ endorsements of whisky – and he’s still going strong today.
My choice of whisky is one I rarely encounter – but the vivid yellow label & green bottle always stands out from the crowd & draws me in.
Cutty Sark has dual meaning.
Rabbie Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter – a tale about drinking & chasing cutty sark or ‘short skirts’ in modern terms – still resonates today.
There was also a famous tea clipper – Cutty Sark – which just happened to be docked in London back in 1923. Berry Bros & Rudd decided to name & launch their new Cutty Sark Blended Scots Whisky on the back of this.
Marketing – when you get it right – it works.
And it’s still working today.
I picked up this miniature in a local off-licence when I spotted it.
The colour is reassuringly pale. There is added caramel – common practice for entry level blends – but not too much.
The nose is rather soft & light – with just a hint of sooty smoke & sweet grainy vanilla.
A very easy entry on tasting.
Nothing very much in the middle – before that gorgeous smoke influence wafts in and just makes this blend sail!
It’s simple yet well balanced.
None of the up to 40 different – and ever changing – single malt & grain ingredients dominate.
The particular bottle I sampled is from Berry Bros & Rudd and presented at 43%.
The brand has since passed through the Edrington Group & subsequently been acquired by French group La Martiniquaise-Bardinet.
It’s a lovely easy drinking yet suitably smoky blend that certainly floats my boat!
The fastest growing whisky making countries in the world do not include Scotland.
They do include Ireland, Japan and Canada.
So Scotch Whisky chooses to attack these countries in a series of articles and posts across various media platforms.
The common thread in all these articles revolves around the fact these countries manufacture and market their own whiskies in a manner not compliant with Scottish Whisky Association (SWA) rules.
Now I don’t know about you – but I must have missed the meeting when it was decided SWA rules applied worldwide. It shows a complete lack of respect for those countries indigenous rules, customs and practices.
The fact customers are seeking out those countries whisky products obviously means it has nothing to do with the rules – it must be something else.
Whisky from it’s very inception has never been about the rules.
Whisky has a long tradition and rich historical vein of tales involving illicit poitin & moonshine distillation, smugglers avoiding the gaugers on Highland trails and bootlegging during prohibition to name a few. It’s in the very DNA of what whisky is and has shaped the development of the spirit to this day.
Perhaps it’s about the taste?
Perhaps Scotch’s strict adherence to the rules comes at the expense of new and exciting tastes?
Perhaps those customers boosting non-Scotch making expression sales are seeking out those new tastes and the rules are not as important as they are made out to be?
I don’t believe 95% of what is on the label, and I don’t care much about the 5% I do believe. How does it taste and how much does it cost…those two questions make up the simple matrix that is my buying/drinking decision process.
There are a number of factors mitigating against holding a Burn’s Night in the heart of Ireland.
One of them is the difficulty in finding a haggis for sale in Westmeath!
Thankfully I brought some of the prize pudding back with me from a recent Scottish trip – along with some whisky I had in mind – which is my cue for a song!
So January 25th found me in Sean’s Bar – the oldest bar in Ireland – hosting an Irish versus Scotch blind whiskey tasting.
I’d decided to go blind – the whiskey that is, not me – wrapping the bottles in tinfoil to disguise the brands – so there would be no bias in the results. The nose & taste of the spirit would be the crucial factor.
I roughly paired the whiskeys into 4 categories.
‘a’ being grains,
‘b’ obviously blends,
‘c’ single malts &
‘d’ being undefined – which will become clearer later. I tried as far as possible to get pairs of equal cost, style, flavour & profile – with only 50% success. The idea was to get a winner for each pair – then a ‘best of’ for the evening – having some fun along the way.
Votes were cast at the end of the tasting round to get the 4 individual winners – as well as the overall winner – before any of the whiskeys were revealed to some surprised faces.
The first winner of the evening was Egan’s Vintage Grain.
I’ve featured this single grain previously in a blog here. For a grain whiskey Egan’s delivers some punch both in flavour & style which didn’t go unnoticed by the audience. Most of them assumed it was a Scotch. 1st surprise of the evening.
I’d cheekily paired this with McDowell’s No 1 – the 2nd biggest selling brand of whisky in the world. This is actually a blend of Scotch, malt & neutral spirit – as it says on the label. Guinness Nigeria is also on the label – although McDowell’s is distilled in India by a company founded back in 1898 by a Scotsman unsurprisingly named McDowell.
Some 90% of all whiskey sold throughout the world is blended. So category ‘b’ is the real battle ground. The winner of the evening?
Well – being held in Sean’s Bar what else would you expect? But remember – this was a blind taste test and not all the participants had tried either of the entrants before.
The other bottle was named after an Irishman. Ernest Shackleton was born in Co Kildare in 1874 and went on to became a famous Antarctic Explorer. This blend I found a rather weak representation of a whisky he took to those frozen lands in the early 1900’s. My audience seemed to agree.
The single malts also had a clear winner. It gives me great pleasure to announce the wonders of this whiskey.
I’d paired this with the Dalmore Valour which delivers quite a nice rich, dry port & sherry finish to the palate. It’s youthfulness probably let it down when compared to the depth of flavour of the Irish 26yo. On a price front however – they are comparable.
The last category contained spirit which is not currently available in both countries. Ireland has it’s single pot still whiskey made with a mash of malted and unmalted barley. While Scotland has just released it’s 1st rye for over 200 years. The winning margin in this case wasn’t as wide as previous categories – but a winner there was.
The cleaner, bolder, more upfront spice hit of Arbikie Highland Rye gave Scotland it’s only winner of the evening. There were a few surprised faces during sampling on this one – and even more when it was revealed – but clearly rye is a style to be reckoned with – and I can’t wait for that 6 year old Kilbeggan rye to be released. Unfortunately Green Spot just didn’t hit the high notes in this round.
Of all the category winners – in fact of all the entrants – I’d asked for a favourite for the evening. The 67% majority vote took me a little by surprise.
What else can I say but congratulations to Aldi & all the team that were behind this amazing release.
The bottle was drained, the haggis was shared out, and the participant that turned out immaculately attired in a kilt was duly given a bottle of whisky by way of a prize.
I’d like to thank all those that attended. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and from comments on the evening, everyone else did too! Big thanks also to Sean’s Bar for hosting the event. By the sounds of it – we’ll be back for more!