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Making Burns Night Special

Having spent ten or so years living in Scotland, I realised how shrewd that nation’s selection of national festivals is.

It is surely no coincidence that St Andrew’s Day, Hogmanay and (today’s feature event) Burns Night are all perfectly positioned to brighten the last few days of each of the three most dismal months of the year.

Speaking of coincidences, I have also been struck by the similarities between Scotland and Alsace.

Each has separate languages and well-defined cultures, are at geographic and climate extremes of France and the UK respectively (temperature for Scotland and lack of rainfall for Alsace), have strong links with spirits and enjoy hearty food.

It was that congruence that first led me to consider pairing Alsace wines with haggis and, to the horror of many fellow wine writers, that now represents my “go-to” partnership.

Fair minded as ever, I do look today at alternative (or supplementary) drinks for Burns Suppers when those events fall due (on or around 25 January).

The customary hyperlinks and pictures also appear in today’s post as they make locating the bottle concerned that little bit easier.

First up then white wine

Given what I have just said, recommendations from Alsace will surprise few but the grape variety here may.

With a spiciness that resonates well with haggis, gewurztraminer also has the right texture (and a touch or two of sweetness for contrast) while any shortage of acidity – a common complaint with some gewurztraminer – is no a big deal here.

Here is one manifestation of the variety that I greatly enjoyed.

Perfumed and rich, 2018 Cave de Hunawihr Kuhlmann-Platz ‘Cuvée Prestige' Gewürztraminer(from £10.99 at Majestic and 14% abv) has smooth, floral, cooked apple, orange and honey flavours coupled with ginger centred texture, savoury edges and a trace of acidity.

But let’s try another variety

Riesling is another grape that prospers in Alsace and that can work well with substantial food, so this example is not only a good companion for haggis but a brilliant example of riesling in its own right.

Textured yet zesty, 2019 Cave de Beblenheim Kleinfels Riesling(£10.99 at Waitrose and 13%) delivers lime, pear and grapefruit flavours supported by tangerine acidity, hints of pepper, basil and an initial slate minerality but only the merest hint of riesling’s trademark kerosene aromas. 

Trying some reds next

Many reds are too robust or too reliant on assertive fruitiness to complement – rather than overpower – the haggis.

In the past, however, success has been achieved with selected medium bodied Old World syrah but this year I have veered towards tempranillo.

Actually that’s only half true with this Portuguese option because it is 50% aragonez (tempranillo in Portugal) with touriga nacional and trincadeira providing the rest, but it does underine what the Alentajo region can do well.

Medium bodied with limited aromas, 2019 Bojador Tinto(£10 at WoodWinters and 14%) contains persistent plum and chocolate flavours with suggestions of clove and menthol, firm tannin and lively acidity.

Almost as successful with haggis, is the same retailer’s 2020 Bodegas Alceno Barinas Tempranillo(£8.50 and 13%) with its smooth raspberry and cherry backbone and vague nuttiness – but little tannin.

But, of course, we need whisky too.

Whisky is indispensable for the toast to the haggis and, while an exact food match is not essential for that task, a major flavour conflict should be avoided.

I have found that most successful alliances steer clear of excessive smokiness or dominance but do contain elements of spice and sweetness – often courtesy of ex-sherry casks.

So, for a named whisky that looks good on any table, try this well-known guy from Orkney.

With traces of honey and even golden syrup (both presumably from sherry casks), Highland Park 10 Year Old Single Malt Whisky(£34 at Tesco) gives you smooth marmalade and smoky flavours with suggestions of toasted oak, heather, nutmeg and mild spices to give a surprising sense of sophistication for the money.

And to another supplier

Given its substantial presence in Scotland, it is appropriate that Lidl has built a strong range of whisky and, better still, offers them at very modest prices

For the purists, the best match for haggis from their range seems to be Lidl’s deceptively powerful, caramel influenced Ben Bracken Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky(£16.99) but for other toasts (or all-round drinking) I have another suggestion.

I was hugely impressed by the style and value of Abrachan Blended Malt (£15.99 at Lidl) which is soft and smooth and skilfully combines mint, nut and fudge flavours with hints of sweetish spices yet has lively citrus influences too and wraps them all in a subtle peatiness that adds complexity yet is never intrusive.

Finally to Beer

Chefs sometimes contend that the broader range of textures beer provides can make it an especially versatile companion to food.

To test that out, I turned to the excellent Innis & Gunn beers and found a really good match (and enjoyable drink whether with food or not) almost straight away.

Aromatic with a gentle bitter finish, Innis & Gunn Lager Beer (£4.50 for four 440ml cans at Asda) has neatly rounded, oat flavours, grapefruit sharpness, floral influences, energetic effervescence, and perfectly balanced depth.

For added richness though …

If the occasion demands greater depth and oomph then try the widely available Innis & Gunn Caribbean Rum Cask (pictured above). It is rich without being heavy and, despite being light in colour, has a neatly balanced cereal texture containing touches of vanilla, chocolate and gentle malt influences. 

Heading Overseas

Getting back to where we started (with references to Europe) I found a good match for haggis by using this well-known Belgian beer.

Rich and rounded, Hoegaarden Wheat Beer(£3 for 750ml at Tesco) has smooth orange and cereal flavours enhanced with subtle bitterness yet impressive spicy hints too.

So, all in all folks, have a great Burns Night wherever you are and I hope that (unlike the mouse) your plans for the evening are not amongst those that “gang aft agley”.

Changes to the Site

As I said last week, Christmas breaks provide a good time to reflect on what does (and doesn’t) work well on this site.

One of this year’s conclusion – from “click through” numbers in particular – is that my longer Thursday posts are less popular than other posts.

Reinforcing the point, my 2019 survey revealed that the quest for detailed knowledge is a priority for only 20% of respondents.

In addition, the “average time on site” suggests that most people only read parts of long, detailed posts.

Having said all that, however, Thursday items like Discounter Discoveries, Sunday Best and Pick of the Clicks do have enthusiastic supporters.

So, putting everything together, I have resolved – from the start of February – to distil any “detailed knowledge focus” into a monthly rather than a weekly post.

Later, the post could perhaps form the basis of an e-magazine – but not yet.

For now, that new post will simply incorporate the popular items already discussed but cover them more succinctly.

That brevity is designed to match the “time poor” demands of modern living.

Nevertheless, since I value regular contact with subscribers (many of whom now feel like friends), I shall continue with twice weekly posts.

To achieve that, the “promotions review” will move to Thursdays – which better suits the cycle of most retailers' promotions anyway.

Monday’s posts will then be dedicated to my current Top Tips.

On a Wednesday towards the end of each month, the new Discounter Discovery (etc) post will appear.

For that week alone the promotions post will be delayed 24 hours until Friday morning.

All that will, I sense, be a better fit with what most subscribers want but, if I have called that wrongly, no doubt the comments part of the site will tell me so!

My next post (on Monday) contains details of my current Top Tips – so join me then.


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Comments

12 Comments

Nigel

Thanks as always for the carefully selected recommendations Brian and appreciate the heads up on forthcoming changes. Whatever your perspective hopefully everyone agrees some degree of change or adaptation is a good thing!

Brian Elliott

Thanks Nigel ….. Changing a reasonably popular site (even to freshen it up) always creates apprehension so I do appreciate your encouraging words.

Louis Wustemann

Brian, does your time-on-site average exclude the bounce rate for people who leave within a couple of seconds? Because they decide they have come to the wrong place?
If not it will give you an overly bleak picture of TOS.

Brian Elliott

Really appreciate your getting in touch Louis and that thought had not occurred to me so many thanks for pointing it out.

Stephen Barrett

Brian. Thanks for the heads up. Always appreciate your critical observations and topical notes. Change is often good so no worries from me! Stephen

Brian Elliott

Many thanks Stephen. That reassurance (and accompanying kind words) are very much appreciated.

Eddie Walker

As ever Brian thank you for this. Having had a strong association through work of over 40 years with Scotland I have long celebrated Burns Night. Once even engaged to entertain at a Burns Supper here on Teesside! So I’m a bit traditional wheni t comes to what accompanies my haggis neeps and tatties and stick to whisky. Since it came back in store last year I have never been without a bottle of your current recommendation of the Lidl £15.99 Abrachan blended malt. Its a compromise of sorts set against even the popular entry level classic 10 year old single malts but at the money is fabulous value for a top drawer dram. Warm nutty and as you rightly say subtly peaty its my go to every time when I can get it even though I keep several more specialist styles on my shelf. For the 25th then .. Slainte …

Brian Elliott

Hi Eddie and good to hear about Burns Night being celebrated on Teesside. As you say, that whisky is a great option – achieving what compromises so often fail to do and ticking boxes for almost all tastes. I heard one respected commentator suggesting that Abrachen would still be good value at double the price. Praise indeed!

Chris Scott

Hi Brian, good to have the posts back in the inbox again and look forward to the new format. Change can be good.
Tried an Alsace last year with my haggis but sticking to traditional Scottish “bevvy” this time. Going for West Brewery 4 Lager to kick things off, very, very nice and recommend you try if you haven’t already followed by the whisky. Have to say you can’t go wrong with the abrachan and always a crowd pleaser in my house even with friends. Hope you enjoy your haggis this Tuesday. I’ve managed to get a free range one this time so looking forward to that………

Brian Elliott

Hi Chris … Not tried West Brewery fare for a while but it certainly always used to be excellent. As you can see from Eddie’s comments, he shares your feelings about Abrachan. Enjoy the night.

Mark Walker

Good news on the site changes Brian, looking forward to see the evolution ahead!

Best

Mark

Brian Elliott

Thanks Mark and good to hear from you. The evolution will be gentle rather than dramatic but it will try to respond to the succinctness that the data seems to suggest most subscribers prefer.


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