Every Jan. 25, Scots celebrate the life of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.
Whether in Scotland or elsewhere in the world, they take the time for a wee dram of whisky as they carry out the long-standing tradition of reciting Burns’ famous poems over a sumptuous traditional Burns supper.
The tradition, begun a few years after Burns death in 1796 by some of his close friends, has been marked in New York City by a supper at St. Andrews Restaurant and Bar, in the city’s Theater District. Mark and Martin Whelan, who own the St. Andrews, also own Maggie’s Place, Stout, The Half Pint, Feile, Amity Hall and the Long Room. This year will be no different.
Mark Whelan, who’s the chef at St. Andrews, has been hosting the diner for about 15 years. In the early years, he recalled, the event attracted just a few dozen patrons. This year it’s sold out at about a hundred guests. Many will arrive wearing kilts.
The dinner starts with the saying of grace, bag pipers, followed by the presentation of the haggis, a sheep’s belly stuffed with organ meats, spices, and oatmeal and the recitation of Burn’s poem, “Address to a Haggis.”
The reading can get very dramatic, says Whelan, “People are really into, it. People love the haggis. They eat it by the handful.”
What follows is essentially a Scottish meal with each course accompanied by a different whisky. Haggis with neeps (parsnips) and tatties (potatoes) is one of the first course selections. Yes, people eat it, says Whelan. This year, various Bowmore Islay whiskies are on the menu, including Bowmore Legend, Bowmore 12 year, Bowmore 15 and for a night cap, Bowmore 18, accompanied by a along with a sing along that ends with Burns’ 1788 work, “Auld Lang Syne.”
Bowmore is the first recorded distillery on Islay (pronounced ‘eye-la’) and one of the oldest in Scotland. Islay malts are renowned for their peaty smokiness.
Whelan, who has worked with Bowmore on other whisky dinners, says the pairings must be done with care to work with the different characteristics of the whiskies. The food has to be prepared to match the whisky, he says. “You want something that will stand up to it. You don’t want to serve the 18 year with the entrée.” That fruity, chocolately elixir is too strongly flavored. Better suited, the 12-year with its notes of smoke, citrus and honey.
St, Andrews is the perfect New York bar for a Burns supper. Named for the famous Scottish golf course – golf pro Ernie Els was to be an original partner, there’s no doubt about the restaurant’s theme. Tartan patterns cover the seats of the bar stools that stand along the polished wooden bar and the dining room chairs and banquettes. Servers, mostly Scottish, wear kilts. “That’s the uniform,” says Whelan.
Meanwhile, the bar offers a selection of more than 200 single malts and 23 blended whiskies, plus Irish and malt whiskies from elsewhere, not to mention a few Scottish beers. Interestingly, the Whelans are Irish, not Scotch. In opening the pub, they decided New York had too many Irish places.
And what of Bobby Burns Day? Says Whelan, “It’s an excuse to eat good food and drink good Scotch.”
How will you mark Robert Burns day?