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Toast Burns's 250th birthday with a strong spirit

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

An incensed reader, posting a foulmouthed comment under a pseudo- nym, took offence a couple of weeks ago to something I'd written. My crime was to propose a drink of Madeira, the favourite wine of America's founding fathers, in honour of U.S. President Barack Obama. I then went on to discuss the wine's rich historical and political significance.

This is Canada, the writer patronizingly wrote, and I had no business wasting space on what many people consider the most symbolically significant leadership change in U.S. history. This reader mistook a literary device - a timely reference to an important milestone - to be some sort of jingoistic geopolitical statement. Newspapers like ours, the person suggested, should ignore major events in the country next door, the way U.S. newspapers generally ignore Canada. Then he added: "You're worse than useless." Incredibly, he didn't add "eh."

Internet commentary can be illuminating.

As a result, I have grown a tad gun-shy about what I had chosen as my topic for this week. Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth. The iconic Scottish poet was, coincidentally, a big lyrical influence on liberalism, the political and social movement that I dare say can trace its way forward to the politics of Mr. Obama and his Democratic party. It's hard not to be captivated by a Burns poem read aloud by someone with skill to do it. And any writer who can find artistic inspiration in boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with guts and oatmeal, as Burns did in the memorable Address to a Haggis, gets my respect. I also believe his 250th deserves a toast.

But Robbie Burns was not Canadian.

So, let me attempt to disguise the blatant anti-nationalist bias of my topic by invoking our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. To the frustration, I assume, of certain parochial newspaper readers, our great founding father was an immigrant to these shores, born in Glasgow, to be precise. Bet he'd be raising a glass or three to The Bard tomorrow were he still alive.

Canadian enough?

Since we're now in a historical frame of mind, the first Scotch I will suggest is Laphroaig Quarter Cask ($63.95 in Ontario, product No. 19158). Based on the western Scottish island of Islay, Laphroaig makes some of the country's most distinctive and smoky whiskies. Pronouncd la-FROYG, it means "the beautiful hollow by the broad bay" in Gaelic. For what it's worth, Laphroaig also happens to be one of Prince Charles's favourite distilleries, earning the Royal Warrant in the mid-1990s, the first whisky distillery to do so. How's that for more tidy Canadian content, eh? You know the Prince, I'm sure. His mom appears on some of our official currency.

Launched in 2005 and introduced into Canada only recently, Quarter Cask is an old-school tribute to horseback delivery. Aged first in regular-size barrels, the spirit then is "finished" for seven to eight months in small, "portable" casks of the type used more than a century ago to whisk around small quantities of whisky from town to town. (In Scotland, whisky fans don't wait around for slow buggy delivery when their glasses go empty.)

The higher wood-to-liquid ratio imparts a creamier texture and notes of sweet vanilla and coconut. It's slightly softer and vaguely sweeter than the standard - and excellent - Laphroaig 10-Year-Old. And despite the hubub over waning supplies of some whisky brands because of competing demand from emerging markets in Asia and Russia, there's plenty of Quarter Cask in many provinces.

A decent whisky, and certainly more symbolically on-topic, was just released in Ontario. It's called the Official Robert Burns 1998 Vintage ($119.95, No. 91041) from Isle of Arran Distillers and was bottled to commemorate the 250th anniversary. Arran does a lot of specialty bottlings, and there is no evidence Mr. Burns, who died at 37, actually set foot on the island of Arran. But the poet probably often gazed across the water at it from his home county of Ayrshire and sipped its highly reputed "water of life." Very different from the Laphroaig, the Burns bottling whisky, like all Arran malts, is made without peat, so there's none of that big-smoke character that some people hate and some love.

If you can afford them, you might want to opt instead for either of two additional Islay whiskies I strongly prefer to the Burns. I feature them in my online video this week at One is Ardbeg Uigeadail, a glorious spirit currently available only in British Columbia ($116.99, No. 202028). Slightly more voluptuous than the standard and more widely available Ardbeg 10 Year Old ($91.79 in B.C.; $83.80 in N.S.; and stunningly priced at a very low $55.49 in N.B.), Uigeadail was named by London-based expert Jim Murray as "World Whisky of the Year" for 2009. And let's not forget Lagavulin 16 Year Old (124.95 in Ont., No. 207126), a perennial favourite among connoisseurs.

In honour of Chinese New Year on Monday, I have a humble retraction to make. Two weeks ago, I said Yanjing Chinese beer was gluten-free because it's made without wheat and mainly with rice.

I should not have said gluten-free. I now have it from two laboratories (not to mention the brewery) that the beer contains gluten because it is partly made with barley. As such, it is not recommended for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. My sincere apologies.


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