Classic Burns

Ian Wisniewski goes in search of Bobby Burns
By Ian Wisniewski
It’s surprising that so few cocktails are named after people, whether it’s the person who inspired the recipe, or whoever created it .
So, it’s even more surprising that although Scotch whisky only has a limited number of classic cocktails, the Rob Roy and Bobbie Burns are two examples bearing the names of Scottish figures. Rob Roy was the nickname of Robert McGregor (1671-1734), immortalised by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) in the eponymous novel, while Robert Burns is the country’s national poet. However, while Burns the poet would be referred to as ‘Robbie’ rather than ‘Bobbie’ by Scots, the name Bobbie Burns has become the standard reference for the cocktail (I’ve only found one instance of the recipe being called Robbie Burns).

The Rob Roy and Bobbie Burns are not only united in their sense of Scottishness, but also closely related in terms of the ingredients.
The Rob Roy (created at New York’s Waldorf Hotel in 1894, for the opening night of an opera called Rob Roy), comprises a measure of Scotch whisky, red vermouth and a dash of Angostura Bitters.

Now, spot the difference. A Bobbie Burns also requires Scotch whisky and red vermouth, together with a dash of Benedictine liqueur.

It seems inevitable that Robert Burns (1759-1796) would either inspire, or provide the name for a Scotch whisky cocktail, particularly as Scotch whisky was something of an inspiration to him. His poem entitled Scotch Drink includes the lines, “O thou my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink.”Another aspect of his relationship with Scotch whisky was far more practical, as the industry provided him with an additional income. Being an exciseman who collected taxes from distillers, meant that his position was one of the most challenging in the industry.

At that time visiting licensed distilleries didn’t mean working through an enormous list, as the great majority of distilleries were unlicensed and producing illicit whisky.

Needless to say, paying taxes was something that distillers preferred to avoid.

How, where and when the Bobbie Burns was created is uncertain, though its status as a ‘classic cocktail’ is clear, the recipe appearing, for example, in a cocktail book published in the 1930s.

An initial consideration when preparing this cocktail is the choice of Scotch whisky, whether lighter, mellower or richer, which will of course influence the flavour of the resulting cocktail.

While the range of red vermouth is hardly as extensive as the choice of Scotch whiskies, there is nevertheless individuality among brands. And with recipes stating equal parts Scotch whisky to red vermouth, this forms another influential choice.

How the choice of Scotch whisky and red vermouth interact, and which characteristics may be enhanced or minimised, remains to be seen. Benedictine may only play a minor role in this cocktail, being added as a mere dash, but it does provide a significant finishing touch.

Depending on the recipe you follow, the ingredients of a Bobbie Burns are either shaken or stirred over ice.

Another aspect of personal preference is choosing the style of glassware which the cocktail is strained into. Some recipes stipulate a cocktail glass, while others prefer that supremely elegant vessel, a martini glass. The choice is yours.