Scots and Scotch

Burns Night is the manliest holiday you've never heard of

January 24, 2018

From Father’s Day to Opening Day, Joe Montana’s birthday to the 4th of July, there’s no shortage of alpha-dog holidays to celebrate in America. At least once a month, some new calendar-validated excuse to break out the grill, crack a couple of cold ones, and embrace your inner-dude-cliche comes calling, and this January that occasion is Burns Night—AKA the manliest holiday you’ve never heard of.

First held in 1801 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Scottish poet Robert Burns’ death, Burns Night is a boisterous, red-faced celebration with three simple tenants. The first is poetry, vociferously recited, often in kilts. If you’re already headed for the door, just hang on, because we know the next two will interest you:

Scotch—good scotch, bad scotch, any scotch—and meat—a Scotsman’s preferred method of soaking up all that scotch.

Let’s Just Get This Out Of the Way: That meat is going to be haggis, a sort-of Scottish version of meatloaf made of sheep's pluck (heart, liver, and lungs) minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, and wrapped in an artificial casing (traditionally animal stomach). If that freaks you, get a rack of lamb or a couple of butcher’s steaks and serve them with your preferred spud.

Any proper Burns Night unfolds in stages and the best part is that the meal comes first. No waiting around sipping white wine discussing little Tammy’s grades while the Paella finishes braising for three hours. You sit down, you say the Selkirk Grace if that’s your kind of thing, and then you eat. Traditionally the arrival of the food—known as the Piping of the Haggis—will be accompanied by a bagpipe balladeer and a designated whisky bearer whose sole job is to make sure no one’s glass goes empty. Skip the piper if you want, but whatever you do, don’t forget the whisky bearer.

Wait, What Whisky Should We Be Drinking?: Given that Burns was born in Alloway, just a few miles east Scotland’s iconic Islay whisky region, a classic, peaty dram is the way to go. Laphroaig's 10-Year-Old ($44.99) is the cigar-chomping don—a big, briny smoke-ring of a scotch that’ll put hair on your chest and a beard on your chin. Looking for something mellower? Then try one of Bruichladdich’s unpeated offerings like The Classic Laddie ($49.99).

After you’re properly topped off and the Haggis is served, Burns' iconic poem, "Address to a Haggis", is recited. If a raucous drinking ode to meat isn’t your idea of a good time, then maybe this holiday isn’t for you, but you’ve come this far, so you may as well hang around for the dessert and the Immortal Memory, a remembrance of the man you're slugging down sheep guts and scotch for on otherwise anonymous day in late January.

Pro Tip: At this point in the evening, it’s acceptable to put ‘Braveheart’ on at maximum volume.

The Immortal Memory is usually an original speech 20 to 25 minutes in length delivered by the host, but since you probably didn’t have time to write one of those, just remind your friends that Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland who died at way-too-young age of 37 and skip to The Toast to the Lassies—a celebration of women and drink using passages from Burns’ poetry because, to be honest, it’s probably going to be a little more eloquent than what Bill from next door has to say.

But I don't know any toasts: Just say sláinte (slan-tcha) and be done with it.

Once you’ve concluded your love-lorn clink, a closing toast and the playing of "Auld Lang Syne"—which Burns himself penned in 1788—wraps up the festivities, which, now that we’ve explained them, seem a little more daunting on paper than in practice.

But listen, if you like the sound of Burns Night and want to give it a shot, just start with the broadstrokes. Get a nice bottle scotch, make a hearty meal (we'll leave the haggis up to you), and have some friends over. Skip the kilt and wear a flannel. Read a poem for the first time since college—we promise it won’t kill you. And when it’s all said and done, get everybody a car home and start gearing up for St. Paddy’s, which is pretty much the same thing, only with different whisky.

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