Celebrate the Scottish poet Robert Burns with this namesake cocktail
January 25th is the birthday of Robert Burns, perhaps Scotland’s most beloved poet. During non-COVID times, people throughout the world would gather on or about the 25th to celebrate at a Burns Supper. Much eating and drinking would ensue. Along with toasting.
We won’t be gathering this year. But we can still enjoy our favorite toasting tipple: The Bobby Burns Cocktail is a delightful combo of Scotch whisky and sweet vermouth, seasoned with Bénédictine liqueur.
Care to join us (virtually, of course)? Kilts and bagpipes optional.
Recipe: The Bobby Burns Cocktail
There are actually two cocktails that might have been named after Robert Burns: The Bobby Burns Cocktail, and The Robert Burns Cocktail. Cocktail history is always murky, but it’s likely the Robert Burns was actually named after a cigar salesman. We think the Bobby Burns cocktail is the better of the two, but we provide a recipe for the Robert Burns in the Notes.
Originally, the Bobby Burns Cocktail was made with equal parts blended Scotch whisky and sweet vermouth, with a wee drop of Bénédictine added. Modern versions of the drink tend toward a 2:1 ratio of Scotch to sweet vermouth, and a bit more Bénédictine. Our recipe reflects this.
This recipe takes about 5 minutes to prepare and serves 1.
- 2 ounces blended Scotch whisky (see Notes)
- 1 ounce sweet (Italian) vermouth (the red stuff)
- ¼ ounce Bénédictine (or to taste)
- lemon or orange twist for garnish (very optional; lemon is traditional, but we prefer orange)
- Combine all the ingredients (except garnish) in a mixing glass half filled with ice. Stir vigorously until the contents are well chilled (at least 30 seconds).
- Strain into a cocktail glass or coupe, preferably one that has been chilled. Add garnish, if desired, and serve.
- Why stir rather than shake? Because all the ingredients are clear. Shaking introduces tiny oxygen bubbles, which can cloud the drink. But shake if you prefer – we often do. And the oxygen bubbles will dissipate after a few minutes.
- Traditionally, this drink is served “up” in a cocktail glass. But we like it on the rocks, too.
- Most of the Scotches you’ll see in liquor stores are blended – and blended Scotch is ideal for this drink (a single malt would likely be too strong). At the moment, our favorite blended Scotches for cocktails are Teacher’s and Famous Grouse. Teacher’s in particular has a nice peaty flavor that we like. For kicks, you might use Cutty Sark, even though its flavor is a bit light (a “cutty sark” figures prominently in one of Burns’s most famous poems – see below).
- Our usual reminder: We’re noncommercial and don’t get compensated for mentioning brands. We buy our booze with our own money, and recommend only what we use and like.
- Now for some cocktail history: The Robert Burns Cocktail was probably created before the Bobby Burns. It most likely sprang to life sometime before Prohibition at the original Waldorf Astoria bar in New York City. It may have been named to honor a cigar salesman of the same name who frequented the bar (and was generous in purchasing drinks for other patrons). Or it could have been named after the cigar brand called Robert Burns. No one knows. The traditional recipe for the Robert Burns Cocktail is 1½ ounces blended Scotch, ½ ounce sweet vermouth, 1 to 2 dashes orange bitters, and 1 dash absinthe.
- BTW, the flavor of absinthe works pretty well with Scotch. We sometimes add a dash (about 1/8 of a teaspoon) to our Bobby Burns recipe just for the heck of it.
- A recipe for the Bobby Burns Cocktail first appeared in Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book. It may or may not have been named after the poet (who would probably have preferred the nickname Rabbie to Bobby). But whether that was the original intent or not, the cocktail soon became associated with him. The recipe for the original Bobby Burns called for equal parts of Scotch and sweet vermouth (say, an ounce each) and 1 dash of Bénédictine. But we like our recipe better.
- Robert Burns lived a short life (January 25, 1759 to July 21, 1796). His upbringing was hardscrabble and his education spotty – his father was his primary teacher, although he did have some formal schooling. His early poverty probably contributed to his disdain for the class system that pervaded Scotland at that time. He eventually became fairly radical, supporting the French Revolution and democratic reform in Scotland.
- Burns wrote both in English and in Scots (or more often in a Scots dialect that was understandable to English speakers). A lyric poet, he is considered one of the founders of the Romantic movement.
- One of Burns’s best-known poems is Tam o’ Shanter, a narrative poem about Tam, a farmer who likes to drink and carouse with his friends at a public house until the wee hours. One night, after a particularly festive time, he sees witches and warlocks dancing at the local haunted church as he is riding home. He notices a particularly fetching witch by the name of Nannie Dee who’s wearing a short dress, which prompts him to shout enthusiastically, “Weel done, Cutty-sark” (a cutty sark is a short shirt). The witches and warlocks give chase to Tam, who manages to escape by crossing a bridge over the River Doon (Brig o’ Doon). Witches and warlocks won’t cross a running stream, it’s said, so galloping over the bridge saves him. But it’s a close call – Nannie pulls the tail off Tam’s horse just before he crosses the stream.
- This poem provided an eponym for the clipper ship Cutty Sark. Built in 1869, she was one of the last – and fastest – tea clippers sailing between Britain and East Asia. The figurehead of the Cutty Sark is a carving of Nannie Dee holding a horse’s tail.
- The clipper ship Cutty Sark in turn served as an eponym for the brand of blended Scotch whisky called Cutty Sark. There’s a drawing of the ship on the label. Weel done, Cutty-sark!
- The first Burns Supper was celebrated by some of his friends on July 21, 1801, to commemorate the 5th anniversary of his death. Since then, the tradition has shifted to celebrating his birthday.
- The traditional main course for a Burns Supper is haggis. That’s a savory pudding (cooked in a sheep’s stomach) that contains the heart, liver, and lungs of the sheep, along with onion, oatmeal, and other goodies. We’ve never had it, but it’s supposed to be quite good.
- And the traditional drink? Well, Scotch whisky, of course. We like to serve it in a Bobby Burns Cocktail.
“Nice drink,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “Kind of like a Scotch Manhattan.”
“It is,” I said. “Scotch is really growing on me as a cocktail ingredient.”
“Think we’ll bring out the witches and warlocks?” said Mrs K R.
“How can they resist a dram of this?” I said
“The smoky, peaty flavor of the Scotch is pretty alluring,” said Mrs K R.
Indeed. Smokin’ good stuff. Just watch your tail.
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