For Burns Night: The Bobby Burns Cocktail


Happy 264th birthday to Robert Burns, and happy Burns Night to all my friends who celebrate! I’ve already posted my annual homage to Scotland’s bard, so on this actual date of his birthday we’ll talk more about the cocktail that bears his name. 

I chose the word “bears” carefully, because it turns out that this drink may not have been named after the famous poet, but after a cigar salesman who was a regular tippler at the old Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan more than a century ago—or possibly after the brand of cigars he sold. As with almost all cocktails that have lasted that long, the origin story is murky and probably not even close to true. What matters is that the recipes survive because they are simply delicious. 

In any case, the Bobby Burns has become a traditional drink to accompany the poetry readings, singing, and haggis eating. The cocktail is a simple three-ingredient serve that can be adjusted to taste. The first published recipe appeared in Harry Craddock’s 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, calling for equal portions of whisky and sweet vermouth with three dashes of Benedictine—almost a classic Rob Roy, which itself is just a Scotch riff on the Manhattan. 

But recipes are just a starting point, and there are lots of variations. Let’s look at the ingredients one by one.

The whisky: Traditionally, the Bobby Burns was made with a blended Scotch whisky (the one I keep on hand for mixing is Famous Grouse), but I attribute that to the scarcity of single malt whiskies in the United States until late in the 20th century. I’ve come to favor making it with a peaty Islay Scotch (e.g., Laphroaig 10 Year), which lends complexity and depth to the drink’s flavors. 

The vermouth: A quality sweet vermouth with moderate intensity works best; my go-to for this is Dolin Rouge. After all, the Scots have had a close relationship with the French, going back to when precursors or both nations were bitter enemies of whatever England looked like at the time. But mostly, Dolin Rouge is an excellent sweet vermouth. 

The sweetener: While Harry Craddock’s recipe called for Benedictine, other luminaries since have recommended Drambuie Liqueur because it’s mostly Scotch whisky and heather honey. You know—Scotch with Scotch sauce, for Scots. 

I’ve fiddled with the original recipe for a while, finding the simplistic “equal amounts of Scotch and vermouth” inadequate. Here’s my current favorite Bobby Burns; consider yourself licensed to find your own sweet spot.

Marty’s Laphroaig recipe

1½ oz Laphroaig 10 Year Islay Scotch Whisky
1 oz Dolin Rouge vermouth
¾ oz Drambuie Liqueur 

Stir ingredients with ice, strain into chilled glass (perfect for a Nick & Nora). Express oils from a twist of lemon zest over the drink and discard, or drop a curl of peel into the glass; serve drink with a slice or cookie of shortbread. 

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