The very first Robert Burns Supper was held on the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death, in 1801, and it took place in the cottage where he was born. (By that time, the house had been turned conveniently into a pub.) Nine gentlemen sat down to a simple repast of haggis and sheep’s head; Burns’ Address to a Haggis was read, several toasts were drunk—probably Bordeaux wine—and a commemorative ode was delivered. They resolved to meet again the following year, on Burns’ birthday, January 25.
The original group of nine now numbers in the millions, and they faithfully continue this annual tradition of honoring Scotland’s national bard, who wrote, among other things, Auld Lang Syne. The Robert Burns World Federation has around 500 affiliated clubs across the globe.
The pattern established at the inaugural Burns Supper has changed little, although Scotch whisky is today’s drink of choice. The meal also offers a great opportunity to pair dishes with different single malts. Here’s my suggested menu. Slàinte!
Cock-a-leekie soup (a chicken-and-leek broth) goes well with a rich Speyside malt like The Glenrothes or Cragganmore. Sometimes Scottish smoked salmon is served instead, in which case try Old Pulteney or Highland Park.
Haggis, with neeps and tatties (mashed rutabaga and potato), is a must. Spicy Talisker is the perfect accompaniment; remember to pour a little of the spirit over the meat before eating.
Third course (optional):
Roast sirloin of Aberdeen Angus beef. I would drink a good Bordeaux with this, but a complex well-aged Speyside like Glenfarclas or The Macallan also matches well.
A Scottish dessert, like trifle, crannachan or clootie dumpling. Enjoy a frozen whisky in chilled glasses—Dalwhinnie or Glenmorangie is excellent.
Oatcakes and Scottish cheeses. If you have bold-flavored cheeses, have a smoky malt like Ardbeg, Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Caol Ila or Bowmore.
Coffee. Now is the time for toasts, so glasses must be kept charged with any of the malts suggested above.
Charles MacLean, Master of the Quaich and James Beard Award winner, is the author of ten books on Scotch, including the Whiskypedia.