Deep in the doldrums of January, the world can feel like a dark place; forever cold with no bright light at the end of the tunnel. But there is something worth living for in this time of eternal dusk. That thing is Burns Night.
Burns Night (a national holiday in Scotland) celebrates the great Scottish Poet Robert “Robbie” Burns, who in his short 37 years wrote scores of iconic poems and songs—including the New Year’s Eve staple, “Auld Lang Syne.” A traditional Burns Supper includes poetry, bagpiping, haggis and lots and lots and lots of Scotch whisky.
You don’t need to love those first three things to throw a great Burns night fete, but the last is non-negotiable. Here’s everything you need to know to make yours as authentic as possible. Just pick and choose which aspects you want to include and don’t forget the scotch. And make sure you pick up some extra scotch. And have a few bottles of scotch in reserve.
A true Burns Night always includes a bagpiper to pipe in the guests as they arrive and, most importantly, pipe in the haggis as it is presented in all of its intestinal glory. If you don’t know a bagpiper, first reconsider your life’s priorities, then get your hands on some pre-recorded bagpipes or other traditional Scottish music.
Speeches, Toasts and Poetry Recitation
The meat of Burns Night is its speeches and toasts (all of which are, naturally, accompanied by a slug of whisky). The host typically welcomes everyone to the evening with a brief speech about the significance of the day and, perhaps, a short reading from one of Burns’s poems. Throughout the evening, guests are encouraged to toast and recite freely, raising a glass of scotch each time. The can’t-miss toast, however, is the reading of Burns’s “Address to the Haggis,” which follows the piping in of the haggis and ends with the host stabbing and slicing the great beast of a sausage.
The meal itself is a hearty one. The two most essential courses are the soup course—typically cullen skink (a chowder made with smoked fish, potato and onion) or cock-a-leekie (a leek and chicken soup)—and haggis, the traditional Scottish dish of sheep’s offal, onion, oatmeal and spices, stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and simmered. Though authentic haggis is currently unavailable in the U.S., new reports say Americans could be feasting on lungs and liver before the end of 2017. Until then, you can order haggis approximations from companies like Scottish Gourmet USA, which even offers a vegetarian version, or buy it in a can. The haggis should be accompanied by neeps and tatties, aka mashed turnips and potatoes. Optional courses include lamb, scallops and cranachan—a creamy dessert of whipped cream, raspberries, honey and whisky.
Of course, it would be a true Burns Night without a lot of scotch. As this is a special night, splurge on the good stuff. Brush up on your scotch regions and pick up one of these amazing new bottlings, or get to know the smoky spirit with these beginner-friendly options. Slàinte mhath (that’s “cheers” in Scotch Gaelic), it’s going to be a good night.