Robert Burns: Poet, Exciseman & Connoisseur?

“Freedom an’ Whiskey gang thegither!”

Robert Burns, poet and literary genius. But as we look forward to celebrating Burns Night once again this Wednesday 25th January we take a closer look at Robert Burns and his work beyond the literary lights, and consider rather the Exciseman and the Scotch Whisky and the haggis.

Robert Burns single malt scotch whiskey exclusive the whisky barrel

Few of us think HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) in relation to Burns night but if his literary skills had been suppressed then a Mr Rabbie Burns may not have been much more than a rather unloved tax man. We are all familiar with ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and ‘To a Mouse’ among other poems and songs, but it was his other career which helped pay and support his life and family – that of a Gauger or Exciseman. Gaugers were employed by the government to collect taxes and prevent smuggling, particularly relating to alcohol and of course Scotch whisky. It proved to be a rather lucrative position when he joined in 1788; he was paid the princely sum of £50 GBP ($80 USD) per year. His literary connections helped him move up the ranks.

Robert Burns poems single malt scotch whisky

By 1789 his role covered a number of parishes in Dumfriesshire where he travelled on horseback – quite the poet’s mode of transport. But his role as an excise man was not one that was loved by the masses. With a tax imposed on malt in 1697, an essential ingredient of Scotch whisky, illicit distilling took place throughout Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of avoiding this tax. Smuggling the ‘water of life’ became a necessity to avoid the Exciseman. Burns was working as an Exciseman when the renowned Kennetpan and Kilbagie distilleries went into decline. It was perhaps this slow demise of Scottish ‘aquae vitae’ due to political pressure exerted by English distillers that caused Burns’ disillusionment with his job – “Freedom an’ Whiskey gang thegither!”

Burns night supper haggis

If Burns was around to-day he would perhaps be pleased to see that a close relationship has developed between the HMRC and the Scotch Whiskey Association (SWA). A memorandum of understanding was drawn up between the HMRC and the SWA in 2008. In this modern world it is not illicit distilling and smuggling within Scotland that is of concern but foreign imports and imitations. We are keen to see Scotch whiskey enjoyed throughout the world but we are even keener to ensure that its true Scottish identity is maintained. The Scotch Whiskey Regulations 2009 placed sole ownership of Scotch whiskey in the hands of our many distilleries. It may have been over two centuries since Robert Burns was an unpopular taxman but his role was part of the history and evolution of the legal rights that exist today to protect our wonderful and most loved drink. That in itself is worthy of a Burns Supper and to coax out our hibernating Haggis.

Whilst this is perhaps a less romantic image of Burns than many are accustomed to it did not prevent him from becoming both a connoisseur of Scotch Whiskey and an eminent poet who disliked his role as an Exciseman – ‘The Deil’s Awa wi’ th’ Exciseman’. In honour of the poet and the Exciseman has decided to celebrate Burns’ 253rd (we like to be a bit different!) by releasing an exclusive Burns Malt bottling. With only 120 bottles available this special single fresh sherry cask 21 year old Bunnahabhain bottled at natural cask strength is a delightful dram that is a perfect accompaniment to your Burns Night Supper. So what would Burns think of this dram?

Bunnahabhain 21 year old burns malt

Burns: “I have had much acquaintance with Kilbagie’s dram –it is the most rascally liquor and in consequence only drunk by the most rascally part of the inhabitants – it is most fiery. However, this delightful new dram from Bunnahabhain is the most smooth and flavoursome I have had the pleasure to taste. Who would believe that by maturing Scotch whiskey in casks which previously held rich sherry could create such a sublime dram”.


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