What’s the difference between a dead snake in the road and a dead bagpiper in the road? Skid marks in front of the snake.
OK, one more: How is playing a bagpipe like throwing a javelin blindfolded? You don’t have to be very good to get people’s attention.
These are just a couple zingers I’ll be laying down at a Burns supper Friday night at which I’ll be roasting and honouring my Scottish father-in-law, Alex Lawson. Fortunately, he can take a joke so chances are I won’t get clubbed upside the head with a kebbie.
Remarkably, at 86, Alex can still sing and recite many of the songs and poems of Robert Burns (1759-1796). That itself warrants a toast with a fine dram of whisky at a dinner celebrating the life and poetry of Scotland’s favourite son.
Indeed, Alex was just the kind of Scotsman Burns exalted in poetry. Born poor but proud, he found strength and happiness in his Scottish heritage, family, comrades and indefatigable sense of humour.
Too young for war, but not for the equally hazardous coal mines, he spent his teen years toiling underground in the West Lothian coalfields, near Edinburgh. He sought relief from the danger and drudgery by attending church, learning the bagpipe, tipping the odd dram of whisky, and playing practical jokes on his mates. (Alex is perhaps the only person to ever get fired from coal-mining for having too much fun on the job.)
Mischief got him out of the mines, briefly, but it was the pipes that proved a ticket to a better life. In 1950, Ogilvie’s department store in Montreal placed an ad in the Edinburgh Evening News for a Scottish piper to play in the store each day between noon and 1 p.m. (This tradition continues 63 years later.) As an incentive, Ogilvie’s offered the successful applicant trades training and employment. Alex responded and shortly thereafter boarded a tramp steamer for a new life in Canada, leaving behind family, friends and all that was familiar.
Canada agreed with Alex. The food was better, job safety meant something, and there was no shortage of admiring women, sweet on a tall, strapping lad in full Highland dress. Incredibly, his piping didn’t scare off the best-looking one: He caught the eye of Joy, a bonnie lass working behind Ogilvie’s handkerchief counter. The two soon married and began raising a rambunctious family of six, including one lovely “wee brick” named Heather (a.k.a. “wife”).
Six decades after immigrating to his adopted country, Alex’s love of the pipes, Burns, and “The Holy Land” (Scotland) all remain intact. An undiminished accent suggests he just got off the boat. In a nod to him, and all other Scots abroad, I’ll be raising a glass of Scotch whisky on Friday. Hopefully a dram, or two, of the following will help me choke down the haggis that follows:
750 mL, 43 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), $77
A lot of whisky purists sniff at blends, regarding them as somehow inferior to single malt. Nonsense. Some of the finest Scotch whiskies are blends combining the best single malt and grain whiskies, in the process creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This whisky puts paid to the argument for blends. Golden amber in the glass, it has delicate aromas of vanilla, oak and a lurking hint of peat. Silky as pheasant feathers, it has remarkable complexity, including flavours of tangerine, honey, smoke and eastern spice.
At $77, it costs about half as much as many premium single malts.
750 mL, 43 per cent ABV, $93
This smooth Speyside single malt shows what wood can do to distilled spirit. Matured in a combination of bourbon barrels and sherry hogsheads, it shows gold in colour with heady aromas and flavours of orange citrus, fruitcake, toffee, chocolate, spice and a whiff of peat smoke that clings in a long silky finish.
The Dalmore 12-Year-Old
750 mL, 40 per cent ABV, $70
More aggressive than a Speyside whisky, this Highland single malt is amber in colour with expressive aromas and flavours of cherry, sweet malt, nutty espresso and marmalade.
Consistent with Scottish thrift, it is perhaps the best value single malt on the market.
750 mL, 46 per cent ABV, $94
Smoky, briny and peaty like a good Islay whisky should be, this gold-coloured Scotch is tempered by sweet malt, citrus flavours and caramel. Sublime to whisky aficionados, it tastes like a peat bomb to the uninitiated. A better starter Scotch whisky is Ballantine’s 17-Year-Old, or the Benromach 10-Year-Old.
Note: The above Scotch whiskies are available at most B.C. Liquour Stores and private retailers, though prices and availability may vary.
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