Like many Canadians, I can claim some small portion of Scottish ancestry. While I may not boast Groundskeeper Willie levels of Scottish-ness, I do regularly partake of Scotch Whiskey, widely considered as the gold standard by which all other whiskies are judged, and on one very special day of the year, I even prepare a haggis.
The special day in question is January 25, and will mark the 259th birthday of Robbie Burns.
For those not in the know, Robbie Burns is Scotland’s most famous poet/writer, considered the great national bard of the kilt-wearing folk. His birthday is considered one of the most important holidays in Scotland, and is celebrated by those of Scottish descent the world over.
Robbie was born on January 25, 1759 to peasant farmers in Alloway, and turned to writing poetry to escape the hardships of poverty and subsistence farming. He eventually rose to the status of cultural icon in Scotland, loved by rich and poor alike. His Scots Wae Hae lyrics were used as an unofficial national anthem for decades, but he is most recognized in North America for his poem Auld Lang Syne – y’know, the one you sang off-key back on New Year’s Eve.
Scottish emigration through the ages has resulted in 30 million people of Scottish ancestry living overseas, vastly outnumbering the 5 million people in Scotland proper.
Canada alone has 4 million people of Scottish ancestry – almost as many as Scotland! Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland) is home to large numbers of both Highland and Lowland Scots, and Scottish culture has continued to flourish there.
For many years, I have carried on the rich tradition of hosting a Burns Supper, which entails the drinking of whiskey, the eating of haggis, and spirited reflections on the words and music of Robbie Burns.
As in years past, when the unruly posse of my regular drinking companions arrive for a night of Scottish libations and culture, they bear less resemblance to a group of poetry fans than a boisterous Scottish clan returning from a fortnight of fasting on the blasted heath with MacBeth himself, such is the vigour with which they attack the haggis and applaud the obligatory bagpipe music.
When the last of the haggis has been swallowed, we sit in repose with the dulcet tones of Scottish poetry streaming from YouTube, and enjoy many fine whiskies while toasting the memory of Robbie Burns, even reciting along with a few of the poems to add to the solemnity of the occasion.
Robbie Burns Day is also the one day of the year that I pull out my ever-dwindling bottle of Glendronach 1972, bottled after 40 years in oak, and finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks. I acquired the bottle 5 years ago at a bargain price, which has since jumped up to a little over $2000, so I make sure to savour every drop on the one day a year that I pull it out of the cellar. The long aging gives the whiskey notes of raisin, clove, and smoky leather, with a very long finish.
While the rare whiskies are a special treat, they will never be a daily drinker, so in addition to a few wee drams from my own private still hidden in the reeds down at the end of the lake, I cracked open the inaugural release of single malt whiskey from Alberta’s own Eau Claire Distillery, located in nearby Turner Valley.
Eau Claire’s master distiller is none other than Winnipeg-born and Scotland-raised Caitlin Quinn, who jumped at the chance to return to Canada after completing a Master’s degree in Brewing & Distilling Science at the world-renowned Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and we are lucky to have her in our fair province.
Fortunately, I was able to procure a bottle of their inaugural batch of whiskey by lining up early on the release date, where the crowds jostled and squeezed into the small distillery the moment the doors opened, quickly selling all 1000 bottles in the production run.
With notes of apple and oak on the tongue, the Eau Claire Single Malt Whiskey has none of the harsh and peaty flavours that are so off-putting to novice boozers, making it highly approachable. If you don’t already have a bottle from the sold-out first release, you won’t be able to find one, but the Eau Claire Distillery plans to release a Rye Whiskey this summer, and another single malt at the end of the year.
Celebrate your inner Scotsman with a fine bottle of Scotch Whiskey, or wait with bated breath for our own local Eau Claire Distillery to release a local version. Bagpipes and haggis are entirely optional!