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A Drink For Burns Night

Jan 24, 2023 | By Jack Bettridge
A Drink For Burns Night

As if the idea of slogging through 31 days without a drink weren’t tough enough, Dry January (which it turns out has nothing to do with dry Martinis) is cruelly scheduled in a month that includes an event that definitely calls for a toast: Burns Night.

Burns Night is the annual celebration of the birthday of Robert Burns, the national bard of Scotland, and it predates any faddish post-New-Year’s attempts at temperance by two centuries. Given his predilection for imbibing, a sample of his country’s national drink— Scotch whisky—is in order. Conveniently, a cocktail exists that seems to bear his name as well: the Bobby Burns. 

I say “seems” because the moniker may have a cigar connection instead. Rather than discourage me, that revelation tells me I am almost professionally obligated to have one every January 25 (the night it is typically celebrated).

The drink is a variation on the Rob Roy (named for another heroic Scotsman), which is in itself a take on a Manhattan. The latter is made with rye (sometimes Canadian whisky or Bourbon) with sweet vermouth. The former substitutes Scotch whisky for American whiskey. The Bobby Burns is a doctored Rob Roy.

But what of cigars? It seems one of the drink’s earliest published recipes, which calls it by the more formal title Robert Burns, suggests an origin that is not only American, but also includes tobacco. The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (1931) by Albert Stevens Crockett, a tome that celebrates the drinks of the pre-Prohibition era in the legendary New York City hotel tavern, presents the Robert Roy with a note on its pedigree: “It may have been named after the celebrated Scotsman. Chances are, however, that it was christened in honor of a cigar salesman, who ‘bought’ in the bar.” The eponymous Robert Burns is not further identified, but there was a cigar shop of the same name some eight blocks north of the Waldorf when it was first located where the Empire State Building now stands. Is it far-fetched that the proprietor wandered in once in a while? (Of course, General Cigar Co. also made a smoke of the same name via machine, but vintage promotions clearly tie the brand to the poet and not a bar patron.)

But Crockett’s recipe is not the very first reference to the drink. The quite similar Bobby Burns Cocktail is referenced in The Savoy Cocktail Book, of 1930, by Harry Craddock, the legendary bartender at the Savoy Hotel’s American Bar. No origin is suggested, although a note describes the drink as “one of the very best Whisky cocktails” and “a fast mover on St. Andrew’s Day,” the feast of Scotland’s patron saint, which takes place November 30. The earlier date and the location might suggest a relationship to the poet and not the cigar dealer. Except both books were compiled from their respective bars’ histories of more than three decades, so there is no way to know which cocktail was created (or named) first. Also, Craddock was American and may very well have imported the drink upon his arrival in the 1920s. Then too there are enough differences in the versions to suggest that they were created separately. (See recipes, below.)

I’m going to curtail any further conjecture on the drink’s conception and take this as a sign to ignore any thought of teetotaling and celebrate Burns Night with a cocktail and a cigar. The drinks are refreshing and come with a great back story. There is, though, one item on the traditional feast’s menu that I will avoid: haggis.

Robert Burns cocktail (per Crockett)
One part Italian (sweet) Vermouth
Three parts Scotch Whisky
Dash of Orange Bitters
Dash of Absinthe
Combine ingredients over ice, stir.

Bobby Burns (per Craddock)
One part Italian (sweet) Vermouth
One part Scotch Whisky
Three dashes Benedictine
Lemon peel garnish
Combine in cocktail shaker, shake well and strain into cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel on top.

Read Next: The Surprising History of the Mint Julep

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