Winter Warmers: Whisky, Haggis, and Some Poetry

Written by Jane Antoniak

Haggis is one of those love-it-or-hate-it foods. But if you love it, or would like to give it a try, the best time to enjoy haggis and spirits is in January. If your roots link back to Scotland, you will know to set aside time for a wee dram of Scotch on January 25, to celebrate the birthday of poet Robert Burns. Even if you don’t have an ounce of Scottish blood in your veins, you can still enjoy some Burns poetry while sipping the nectar of the gods. At the very least, you could hum along to Auld Lang Syne, a popular Burns poem made famous by London’s own Guy Lombardo.

Scotch whisky can be single malt or a blend of several whiskies made at the same distillery. The ingredients are simple: water, malted barley, sometimes some other grains, yeast and spirit caramel. In Canada there is plenty of rye whisky, which is made using water and at least 51% rye grain mash. More distilleries are emerging in Canada, and many are producing whisky made from rye, malted rye and corn. Some, like the Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask Premium, are very smooth.

The Waltzing Weasel pub in north London has been holding Scotch whisky tastings and Burns suppers in their upstairs loft for 20 years. The cozy room holds 32 people who meet once a month from fall to spring to sample three different Scotch whiskies as chosen by proprietor Mike McCoubrey and his colleague Eddie Sumpter. They chat about the whiskies while guests enjoy drinking them along with a pub supper, a pint of beer and then a sip of the quaich – a special large cup that contains a mixture of the remains of the three bottles.

“I think the whisky nights are popular because they are fun, informative and give people an opportunity to try the whiskies before they buy them,” says McCoubrey.

Mike McCoubrey (right), owner of the Waltzing Weasel, enjoys a glass of Scotch with Ed Sumpter

Each January the Weasel holds at least two Burns nights. This year’s are on January 24 and 25 (the 25th is already sold out). Burns poetry is recited with such passion that it can bring a tear, a laugh, or a confused nod from those gathered.

Sumpter says he has sampled around 200 different whiskies from many countries including Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, India and Japan. After much consideration he lays out his top three, with a few comments:

1. Glendronach 15 year old: beautiful sherry notes, as aromatic as a cognac, nice breakfast Scotch
2. Talisker 10 year old: peaty, smoky, powerful, nice with cacao, evening drink
3. Redbreast 12 year old (Irish whiskey): beautiful complex whiskey thanks to malted and unmalted barley mash, sundowner for sure.

Consider this Burns verse as you sip your Scotch whisky:

O thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether thro’ wimplin worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream owre the brink,
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp an’ wink,
To sing thy name! 

Sumpter has led more than 50 Burns suppers across Ontario. Most venues have an elaborate menu and entertainment. The meal will usually be three courses: cock-a-leekie soup, (chicken and leek), roast beef, haggis, and laced trifle for dessert. There will be music, dancers, a singer, a bagpiper, a humorous toast to the lads and lassies, a short bio of Burns, and of course someone to recite Burn’s poetry.

“Even though few fully understand Burn’s dialect, seeing guys sporting skirts, tartan of all colours, formal dress, and dinner piped in, stabbed with a knife while the owner chants some weird rhyme in a foreign tongue combines to create a unique event,” he says. “Canadians (and Americans) are hungry for culture. While St. Paddy’s is a drinkfest, the Scottish offering is a more rounded and unique offering of cultural entertainment. On a personal note, it is a reminder of the bond I have to my countrymen (and ladies), my humble beginning in life in Scotland and my historic bloodline,” says Sumpter fondly.

While whisky nights are for sipping single malts, there are also classic whisky cocktails which are simple to make at home.

Rusty Nail

2 ounces of whisky
1/4 ounce of Drambuie

Rob Roy

2 ounces of whisky
1 ounce of sweet vermouth
2 dashes of Angostura bitters.

In the summer of 2017 Wayne Gretzky Distillery opened a tasting room, a tasting bar and began to offer tours of the new facility in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is the first company to combine rye whisky and wine tasting in one place. The grain comes from Brant Flour Mills, which is a tribute to Brantford, Gretzky’s hometown. The distillery is centred around a man-made pond, shaped like a hockey rink, which is converted for ice skating in the winter. This is the perfect setting for sipping No. 99 Canadian rye whisky finished in red wine casks.

Zac Kvas is the resident mixologist and he leads a Cocktails 101 seminar. This 45-minute class includes a demonstration of how to smoke rye whisky, muddle, shake and stir it, as well as how to make large round ice balls which melt more slowly, releasing water gently into the alcohol. During the class participants make and consume rye whisky and wine-based spirits cocktails. This one is delightful after partaking in winter sports:

The Espresso After Eight

1 1/2 oz. whisky cream liqueur
2 oz. chocolate espresso simple syrup
3/4 oz. Vidal Spirit
3 drops of mint tincture (extract)
1/4 tube of Ms. Betters Bitters OR 1 egg white
Garnish: mint leaf

Wet shake (with ice) then dry shake to further agitate and smoothen.
Note: the egg white is not necessary, it just makes it more frothy.

While at the Gretzky Distillery try some of the slightly sweetened popcorn with your tastings. For a full meal, it is a short walk to the Trius restaurant next door. The chef at Trius also sends over food pairings to Gretzky’s “The Office” which is a glass-walled tasting room for 14 that overlooks the hockey rink.

The bar at Gretzky’s offers “elevated cocktails” in the $24 to $32 price range, which are very entertaining to watch being made. The smoked Gretzky Manhattan with cedar and pine aromas is especially delicious.

Slàinte mhath!


About the author

Jane Antoniak

Jane Antoniak is a longtime contributor to Eatdrink, sharing her passion for food, drink, travel and the arts through her writing, while always connecting with the people she meets along the way. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations, at King’s University College in London.