“Wine is bottled poetry.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
Scotland’s most famous drink has long been a muse for poets. Through verse, ingredients are exalted, secrets and mysteries of its creation are admitted, descriptions of birthplaces define localities, and, above all, the soul of the spirit and country soar.
Robert Burns, no stranger to the strong drink of his native Scotland, wrote in John Barleycorn what is probably the most recognized homage to Scotch whisky. Here is a lesser-known work, which glorifies the love imbibers have for “good old Scotch drink”:
Robert Burns, Scotland’s Bard
(Selected verses, Standard English Translation)
Let other poets raise a fracas
About vines, and wines, and drunken Bacchus,
And ill-natured names and stories torment us,
And vex our ear:
I sing the juice Scotch barley can make us,
In glass or jug.
O you, my Muse! Good old Scotch drink!
Whether through winding worms you frisk,
Or, richly brown, cream over the brink,
In glorious foam,
Inspire me, till I lisp and wink,
To sing your name!
Let husky wheat the hollows adorn,
And oats set up their bearded horn,
And peas and beans, at evening or morning,
Perfume the plain:
Blessings on you, John Barleycorn,
You king of grain!
Moving forward about 300 years, accomplished poets continue to praise both the foibles and satisfactions associated with drinking Scotch. From its misty Gaelic beginnings, to its sensory delights, Britain’s Poet Laureate describes her drams of Scotch:
Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom
The love of the names, like Lagavulin, Laphroaig,
Loosening the tongue.
Beautiful hollow by the broad bay, safe haven,
Their Gaelic namings.
It was Talisker on your lips,
Peppery, sweet, I tasted, kisser.
First, the appearance
Then the aroma, mouth-feel;
Lastly, the finish.
Under the table
She drank him, my grandmother,
Irish to his Scotch.
Barley, water, peat,
Weather, landscape, history,
Malted, swallowed neat.
The perfume of place, seaweed scent on peaty air,
Heather dabbed with rain.
Liquid narrative of scots and Gaelic,
Uttered on the tasting tongue.
Places, as well as people, have always played integral roles in the history and fame of Scotch whisky. Two of today’s leading brands of single malts are eulogized in verse by authors who have long since accompanied the ethereal journey of “the angels’ share” heaven-bound:
Anonymous, Historical Poems
Glenlivet it has castles three,
Drumin, Blairfindy and Deskie,
And also one distillery,
More famous than the castles three.
… and about Glenfiddich, founded by the Grant family:
Lord grant guid luck tae a’ the Grants,
Likewise eternal bliss,
For they should sit among the sa’nts
That make a dram like this.
Among contemporary wordsmiths, poets, and songwriters, Robin Laing is one of the most-recognized. Robin has written three books about whisky, and recorded eight CDs, three of them exclusively about whisky. With equal ease, Robin uses his sly wit, cutting-edge humor, and tear-jerking nostalgia to make his points about the history, fortunes, and sheer magic of Scotch. Here is a sampling:
Bruichladdich (“broo ick laddy”)
Robin Laing, Scotland’s Whisky Bard
Commissioned to celebrate the reopening of the distillery
One day as I was walking by the shores of Loch Indaal,
I met a man with sadness in his eyes.
The story was as haunting as the lonely seabirds’ call,
And he told me of the day he wept and walked away,
As he watched the fire at Bruichladdich die.
He told me of a place once would never sleep,
With hiss of steam and clang and furnace roar.
How that sleeping beauty lies trapped in slumber deep,
With moonbeams full of dust, and gates & chains of rust,
And ghosts that wander the Bruichladdich floor.
And the moon smiles kindly on the western seas.
Perfume tumbles on the midnight breeze,
And standing on the island of distilleries,
You can almost see the coast of heaven.
More Than Just a Dram
Robin Laing, Scotland’s Whisky Bard
Take clear water from the hill
And barley from the lowlands.
Take a master craftsman’s skill
And something harder to define,
Like secrets in the shape of coppered stills
Or the slow, silent, magic work of time.
Bring home sherry casks from Spain,
Sanlucar de Barrameda,
And fill them up again
With the spirit of the land.
Then let the wood work to the spirits’ gain
In a process no one fully understands.
Oh, the spirit starts out clear,
But see the transformation
After many patient years
When at last the tale unfolds.
For the colours of the seasons will appear
From palest yellow to the deepest gold.
When you hold it in your hand
It’s the pulse of one small nation
So much more than just a dram.
You can see it if you will –
The people and the weather and the land.
The past into the present is distilled.
Poets, with their fingers on the pulse of the subject, have raised their personal paeans to Scotch whisky to glorious heights. They have blessed John Barleycorn, the king of grain, taken us to parts of Scotland where there is a perfume of place, seaweed scents on peaty air, or heather dabbed with rain, and to an island of distilleries where you can almost see the coast of heaven.
By Ray Pearson, Scotch Whisky Expert