Updated: Jan 27
Esteemed whisky writer, Gavin A Smith gives us his recommendations for Hogmanay and Burns' Night
Winter brings with it two of Scotland’s greatest traditional celebrations, namely Hogmanay and Burns Night (25th January), and neither would be complete without a dram or two of fine Scotch whisky.
Happily, for those looking to raise a glass, there is more choice than ever before within the realms of Scotch, from long-aged, sherry casks-matured and peaty full-bodied drams to young, fruity, light expressions, ideal perhaps for mixing. At the close of 2020 there were no fewer than 134 Scottish whisky distilleries in production and, of those, more than 30 have opened in the last decade alone.
Whether relaxing at home, celebrating in a bar, at a Hogmanay party or at a Burns Supper, whisky is a wonderful social lubricant, bonding friends and strangers alike, and all the while paying homage to one of Scotland’s greatest commercial successes.
Facts and figures
According to the Scotch Whisky Association, 36 x 70cl bottles of Scotch whisky are shipped from Scotland to 166 markets around the world each second, totalling over 1.14bn every year, and in 2019, Scotch accounted for 75% of Scottish food and drink exports, and 21% of all UK food and drink exports. More than 10,000 people are directly employed in the Scotch whisky industry across Scotland.
Choose your drams
Clearly, it would be unpatriotic not to support our wonderful industry, and this is the perfect time of year to indulge yourself and your friends in some fine whisky without breaking the bank. So why not explore beyond your usual choices using the suggestions below?
In terms of whisky styles, winter occasions such as Hogmanay and Burns Night may call for some fuller-bodied single malts, perhaps with the influence of sherry cask maturation and/or an element of peatiness.
For lovers of sherried drams, why not give some of the biggest names a swerve, and opt for the lower profile but excellent Tamdhu? The 12-year-old 43%abv expression retails for around £45, but if you want a really bold and intense sherried whisky experience, opt for the Batch Strength variant, currently in its 6th iteration and bottled at a hefty 56.8%abv (£80).
Sherry-rich alternatives include fellow Speysider the 15-year-old Glendronach Revival, bottled at 46%abv (£62) and matured in a mix of Pedro Ziminez and oloroso sherry casks for a rich, complex, flavoursome dram.
Far away from Speyside, in the Kintyre capital of Campbeltown, is Glen Scotia distillery, which offers the 46%abv sherry-finished Double Cask (£40). After initial bourbon cask maturation, the whisky is transferred to Spanish Pedro Ximinez casks, giving a sweet and spicy kick to accompany its slightly oily, coastal character.
Sweet and peat
For those wishing to combine sherry and peat influences in their dram, there is the ever-excellent 16-year-old 43%abv Lagavulin (£65) from Islay, while an attractive lower-profile Islay single malt to combine sweetness and smoke is the 46%abv Kilchoman Sanaig (£52), aged in a mix of oloroso sherry and bourbon casks.
A sense of smoke
For an all-out peated Islay whisky, Douglas Laing’s blended malt (including spirit from several undisclosed Islay distilleries) Big Peat offers fine value (£37), a lot of guts and great balance. If you like some smoke in your whisky but prefer it not to be too medicinal, we suggest Machrie Moor, 46%abv, (£45), distilled on the Isle of Arran.
One single malt not to be missed is Glenmorangie’s limited edition 13-year-old Tale of Winter (£75), finished in Marsala wine casks from Sicily, and boasting notes of fruit and honey, cocoa, cinnamon and cloves. Visit www.glenmorangie.com for whisky cocktail recipes, including a delicious Winter Old-Fashioned, made with Tale of Winter.
New kids on the whisky block
Whiskies from the new crop of Scottish distilleries certainly deserve our attention, as there are some really impressive youthful drams out there. For us, highlights include Ncn’ean Organic Single Malt – Batch 8, 46%abv (£47), produced on the remote Morven peninsula in the West Highlands. Its highly accomplished whisky is nutty, with juicy fruit and cereal notes, spice and black pepper. It also comes in an extremely unorthodox bottle for a malt whisky, which helps make this a great gift.
Another favourite is Isle of Raasay Single Malt, 46.4%abv, distilled in the Hebrides since September 2017. It comprises peated and unpeated spirit, matured in three differing cask types, including Bordeaux red wine casks. In terms of character, it offers aromatic peat, vanilla, red berries, tangy oak and savoury spice.
Remember the blends
So far, we have only featured malt Scotch whiskies, but there are also many excellent blends available, priced to suit all pockets. At their best, blends combine many different yet complementary stylistic characteristics into a harmonious whole, greater than the sum of its parts.
A characterful and original choice is the superb Compass Box Glasgow Blend (£35). A malt-rich independent bottling, with sherry and bourbon-cask influences, plus a hint of peat, giving a rich, smoky, satisfying experience.
Another less obvious option is Black Bull 12 Year Old, bottled at 50%abv (£41) by Duncan Taylor, featuring a relatively high percentage of malt whisky, and matured in ex-sherry and bourbon casks. The result is a full-bodied blend, yielding toffee, vanilla, citrus fruits and chocolate notes.
Moving up the price range, one of the very best blends for special occasions in our opinion is Johnnie Walker Blue Label, 40%abv (£145) - sophisticated, balanced, smooth, and with great depth. Delicious and satisfying!
Scotch whisky is renowned the world over for its excellent quality and its integrity, and the Scotch whisky industry is also at the forefront of environmental responsibility. Among a raft of initiatives, it has set a target of achieving overall carbon neutrality by the year 2040, and earlier this year, Nc’nean became the first distillery in the UK to achieve an independently verified net zero carbon footprint.
All the more reason then, to celebrate two of Scotland’s most revered annual occasions with the nation’s most revered drink – Scotch whisky!