A Master Distiller’s guide to Burns Night

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With Christmas a distant memory and spring a long way off, the end of January isn’t a traditionally cheerful time unless you follow Scottish tradition and throw a party to rival Hogmanay on the 25th. Burns Night is a celebration of the great Robert Burns, national hero and Scotland’s most beloved poet, and a great excuse to shake off the winter blues.

James McTaggart, Master Distiller at Isle of Arran Distillers who produce the world’s only official Robert Burns Malt, is well versed in how to throw a brilliant Burns Night celebration. Here he shares his top choice of whiskies to accompany the festivities.

“Burns Night wouldn’t be complete without whisky and no table is set without a good selection of drams.

“Burns Night is traditionally a very structured affair. There are set times for welcome addresses, toasts, food and entertainment. This gives hosts the opportunity to choose a different whisky to complement each part of the evening.

“I don’t doubt that there are distilleries across the world making great whisky, but I firmly believe that Scotch whisky is the best. And while I am incredibly proud of what we do here at Arran, I’m not too proud to recognise a good dram when I taste it! Whisky is very much a community within Scotland and there are a few distilleries that I am very fond of.”


The traditional toast to friends, food and family, the Selkirk Grace is a cornerstone of Burns Night. The man himself was born just across the water from Arran, near Ayr on the West coast of Scotland so a dram from a Glasgow distillery, Scotland’s biggest west coast city would be most fitting. Why not Auchentoshan which lies on the outskirts of the city?

The Auchentoshan 3 Wood (£47.25is matured initially in bourbon casks before being finished in Oloroso then Pedro Ximénez casks for an extra layer of rich, sweet fruitiness.  Notes of raisin, orange and blackberry will certainly whet the appetite.

Pipe in the Haggis

There’s no escaping haggis as the centre piece of a Burns Night Feast. Rich with spices and the warming flavours of onions, stock and meat, it takes a whisky with a bold palate to pair with a haggis.

I spent the first 30 years of my whisky career at Bowmore, so I can confidently suggest their 15 Year Old Single Malt (£58.55). Delicious dark chocolate, sun-dried fruits and a tell-tale wisp of Islay smoke give way to cedar wood and rich treacle toffee. With a robust and complex finish, it’s the perfect accompaniment for a Burns Night supper.

A Toast to the Lassies and Reply to the Toast to the Lassies

One of the most popular parts of the evening is probably the famous Toast to the Lassies and Reply to the Toast to the Lassies. Usually incorporating quotes from Burns, these are comical monologues, light hearted and positive (with the odd sharp observation).

Kilchoman Distillery’s Machir Bay (£45.95)is a vatting of whisky matured in first-fill bourbon casks for around six years, married and then finished in oloroso sherry butts before bottling. This Single Malt is full of character and will match well with the tone of this part of the evening!

And to finish…

No Burns Night is complete without a rousing rendition of Auld Land Syne in a final salute to the Bard. At Arran, we produce the only whisky endorsed by the World Robert Burns Federation –The Robert Burns Single Malt (£31.99) and it’s the perfect choice for raising a birthday toast to Scotland’s most beloved poet. This is a sweet and creamy malt with flavours of honey and toffee-glazed pecans. Easy to drink, full of fresh citrus notes, its mellow character makes it ideal for cocktails, enjoyed by itself over ice or with a drop of water.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below and let’s have a chat!

Tags: burns nightcelebrationRobert BurnsScotland
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My name is Greg, and I’m a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. My mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about whisky, whiskey, gin, beer and fine dining through my writing, my brand building and my whisky tastings.

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