At Burns Night you have to drink whisky. Well, you don’t have to, but you don’t have to do anything really. I strongly recommend drinking whisky though, on Burns Night and on most other nights. But whisky is not a particularly accessible drink, and if you get your first few whisky experiences wrong then you’ll end up with a lifelong aversion to this magnificent spirit. Also there has been an explosion of interest in whisky in the last 5 years or so, meaning that supermarkets are carrying a much wider range and distilleries are producing a lot more varieties. Prices have also gone up, making buying whisky a bit more daunting for the beginner. So here is a quick guide for buying and drinking whisky for Burns Night, or any other night, or during the day because conventions and customs are just products of our imagination.
When drinking whisky, add water. Add as much water as you need so that it doesn’t burn your mouth and you can taste it properly. Don’t use ice or really cold water, cold things have less taste (hence why you keep vodka in the fridge and lager is best served cold) and you want to taste the whisky. You want it strong enough to be warming, but not burning. Don’t feel bad about doing this, unless you have bought a bottle at cask strength (c. 55% alcohol) then it’s already been watered down before being bottled. So add some water and get it to a level where you actually taste the stuff. Maybe in the future you’ll become accustomed to the burn and enjoy it, but for now add the water.
For your first whisky, get a good blend like Chivas Regal, Monkey Shoulder or Ballantines. Blends are designed to be smooth, with no one flavour predominating so are an excellent starting point into whisky. Don’t buy a litre bottle of Bells unless you’re very clear about what sort of night and following day you’re after.
Single malts are not necessarily better than blends but they are generally more expensive because at least half of a blended whisky will be grain whisky which is cheaper to produce and has a more neutral flavour. If you want to go for a single malt, then stay safe and get one of the glens like Glenlivet, Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie. These are all excellent whiskies from the main whisky area of Scotland around the River Spey. They are smooth, not too fruity and unpeated. Avoid anything that is finished in a wine cask or something like that, plenty of time for those later.
There are two main flavours of whisky and at some point you’re going to want to explore the wild outposts of peat. Whiskies from Islay taste like nothing else. They are made with barley that has been dried in peat smoke and taste smoky, salty and medicinal. The first time I had a Laphroaig (pronounced Laff-roy-g) I thought I’d accidentally licked an ashtray and I was still tasting it the next morning. It’s great whisky but try someone else’s before you decide to buy a bottle. Laphroaig and Ardbeg are probably the most commonly available Islay whiskies and the standard 10 year olds are great. If you can find the Laphroaig Quarter Cask then that’s slightly less peaty having picked up more wood flavour from the smaller cask – it’s excellent and great value.
(As a side note, Ardbeg Uigeadail and Corryvreckan are two of the last good deals you can get at duty-free. For £50-£60 you will struggle to buy better whisky. The standard Ardbeg is good but these are great.)
The other big flavour is sherry, which comes in when the whisky is aged in casks that used to hold sherry. Whiskies like Aberlour and Glendronach taste of dried fruit and Christmas pudding and smell fantastic, so go in for something like that if that appeals. To check how sherried a whisky is, just look at how red the liquid is in the bottle, the more colour it has the more sherry flavour it has picked up from the whisky (unless it’s a cheap whisky that has had colour added).
But whatever you do, add some water, smell it before you taste it and hold it in your mouth for a while. You won’t be drinking a lot of whisky, or at least you won’t remember drinking a lot of whisky so savour the drinks you do remember and think about what you’re drinking.