I have always loved Burns Night. Like St Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving it’s an ecumenical celebration, enjoyed the world over (even in Poland), where for one night only “The Bard” is Burns, not Shakespeare. Of course, his poetry doesn’t bear comparison, apart from the fabulously ribald stuff that no Victorian-collared Morningside Lady Appreciation Society member will ever even admit exists.
I’ve enjoyed hosting annual Burns Night suppers for more than a decade, and each year invitations go out requesting the presence of guests at “A Dinner to Celebrate the Verse of Scotland’s Greatest Poet”. Typically Scottish and appropriate in the age of austerity, it’s unquestionably the most economical method of feeding a score or more people. Although I’ve always middle-classed it up a bit – wrapping the haggis in pancetta and serving it in a Madeira reduction, finishing with mini Mars Bars in filo pastry, etc, I’d like to think Rabbie is well represented in spirit, or at least in spirits. As a great fan of malt and blended whisky (bourbon, rye and the sweet Irish stuff don’t cut it for me), it’s a good excuse to put to test my notion that no malt is better than not waking up with a whisky hangover.
At some point late last year the question occurred to me: how would Gleneagles hotel – such a tartan-patterned shortbread-tin picture of Scottishness (and still boasting Scotland’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Andrew Fairlie) – “do” Burns Night? The answer is – it doesn’t really, not in the full Brigadoon, kilted, haggises spit-roasting over a roaring hearth and ritually slaughtered with claymores sort of way I’d rather hoped. And I didn’t actually visit on Burns Night itself – later than that. But if you ask nicely…
Within ten minutes of arriving at Gleneagles, I had a heavy tumbler of whisky in hand and it had started snowing, giving cliché a good name. My visit had coincided with a Johnnie Walker Blue Label tasting in the Blue Bar (first picture) at the Clubhouse, which was fortuitous. Blue Label (second picture) is, as you all know, the top bottling from whisky’s most widely travelled brand, and its polished intensity is, I’m sure, more eloquently expressed in Johnnie Walker’s corporate literature than by my tasting note: “Balls out, but smooth balls”. With its heated sofas and huge central fire pit, the Blue Bar offers an all-weather smoking platform – but for cigars only. Just as the groups of smokers outside clubs are a good (or bad) advertisement for its clientele, here too the right tone is set before you make your way up to the hotel’s main buildings (not a Lambert & Butler in sight).
Juan Castillo, who looked after us at Deseo (the hotel’s Mediterranean restaurant) on our first evening, when asked to choose a wine instead confidently recommended beer. Inedit, the pilsner/wheat beer cross-designed by Ferran Adrià, Juli Soler and El Bulli’s sommeliers, was impressively rounded, intriguingly more-ish and even more versatile than sherry with various fresh tapas brought over. Although the Extreme Grape vs Grain tastings at London’s Draft House (craft beers against artisan wines, with haiku poetry and arm wrestling) have taught me a greater appreciation for pre-distilled grain, Inedit now remains the only non-wine in the rack at home.
Another recommendation, an Albarino from Granbazan, pleased my fiancée because of the strikingly baroque label design, and me because it was very good. There were five other wines, all Albarino, from this producer on Deseo’s medium-sized Spanish/Italian list, which shows refreshing chutzpah. One should always prefer wine lists that betray the prejudices of the sommelier; ticking boxes does not tick a box, and personality indicates a confidence to justify choices, where comprehensiveness betokens insecurity. We followed up with a Bobal that paired particularly well with some unmissably fine meatballs.
WineChap continues his Gleneagles Burns Night celebrations in Part Two.