A Proper Toast For Rabbie Burns

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - January 21, 2009
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It should be a big year for Scotch whisky. It’s the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns - the anniversary will be celebrated Jan. 25 in Hawaii with a traditional Burns supper - and the entire auld country is celebrating. There’s a campaign called “Homecoming Scotland,” where Scots from around the world are being encouraged to go back home for a series of special events. Erika Engle of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin sent me a link to a music video of the Scottish song Caledonia (http://www.homecomingscot-land.com/caledonia.html) complete with Sean Connery singing- (well, speaking with a bit more of a lilt than usual), and I do admit to becoming teary-eyed at the sight. All this to say, if you’re of Scottish ancestry and planning a trip, there’s probably never been a better time. I’m about to put one together purely for the purpose of exploring whisky, golf and food. I’ve been asked so many times to do a tour that I think I’m finally ready. Watch this space for more information.


And while Rabbie Burns celebrations are in full swing in Hawaii this month (The Caledonian Society’s 250th anniversary Burns Night happens Jan. 25 at the Hawaii Convention Center), I thought it appropriate to celebrate another Scottish family, the Walkers, for without their considerable devotion to expanding their blending empire Scotch whisky may have remained a drink for the Scots with nary a drop to be had in Hawaii.

Today, the Johnnie Walker brand is one of the most recognized in the world, with contracted distilleries throughout Scotland. I visited the Johnnie Walker headquarters in Kilmarnock - the original home to the Walker brands - a couple of years ago, and was impressed with not just the vastness of the Walker empire, but with the local roots that this world-renowned brand maintains. What’s little known to most is that some of the world’s greatest single malts lie at the heart of these incredible blends.

Talisker, for example, is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye. Its stark climate and unforgiving weather produces a whisky that is both pungent and sweet, with more than a hint of salt and peat. This is one of the central single malts blended to make Johnnie Walker Black label, along with Lagavulin from the whisky-producing island of Islay. Across the island from Lagavulin, the Caol Ila distillery produces a malt that’s part of Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Cardhu, a less well-known but equally impressive distillery, is at the heart of the gorgeous, almost sweet Johnnie Walker Gold. Which all goes to show that expertly blended whiskies contain some of the greatest single malts in the world - and are always worth a taste.

Some of them, however, most of us may only hope to sniff from someone else’s glass. The highly coveted Blue Label, for example, sells for roughly $375 a shot. The reason for the steep price tag? The rarity of the blended whiskies. About 17 different whiskies make up the blend, ranging in age from 29 to 75 years old. Several of them are from distilleries that have been closed for 30 years or more.

What most people find extraordinary about the classic blended Scotches is that some of their favorite malts are an important part of the puzzle. Slainte!

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