Festive spirit

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Food writer Rachel McCormack on the Scottish tradition of having a New Year’s Eve whisky

Words: Rachel McCormack

Scotland has to be the only Christian country in the world where celebrating Christmas was at one point a sin. Christmas Day wasn't even a public holiday in Scotland until 1958. The entire yuletide festival there was condensed into one big celebration at new year, the biggest festival in the Scottish calendar.

A landmark in most Scottish children's lives was being allowed to stay up until midnight to see in the bells and the new year—one of those anti climatic moments, as the church bells don't ring as loud anymore and midnight doesn't actually look any different, but families would be dressed in their best clothes and the mood would be one of celebration. 

In post-war industrial Scotland, there were three really important things for any household at New Year to bring in good luck: a clean house, a good ‘first footer’ and a bottle of whisky.

An invading Viking
A first footer is the first person, who’s not a member of the family, to enter the house after midnight. Traditionally it is considered lucky to have a tall dark man (so never an invading Viking) bringing in coal, thus ensuring a warm house and prosperity for the coming year.

If you do find yourself being a first footer to a Scottish household this year, in this age of central heating and electric and gas fires, I would recommend you take chocolates, sparkling wine or some good cheese as suitable first footing gifts. I am sure that they would be far more welcome and luckier than a big lump of coal.

Right up until the mid-1970s, whisky was too expensive for ordinary people to buy—it often cost almost a fortnight's wages, so a full bottle bought for the house was a rare luxury. The bottle bought for the new year was a carefully chosen thing which was saved up for, each household having a favoured brand. It would be opened and poured just before the stroke of midnight, so that everyone had a dram to bring in the new year thus ensuring good luck and prosperity for the coming months.

Good luck and prosperity
If you are anxious to ensure good luck and prosperity yourself, then there is no better way to do so than raising a glass of whisky at midnight. If you are looking for something slightly more unusual, if only to make you more impressive to your friends and family, then the East London Liquor Company is the place to go.

Not only do they distill their own gin, vodka and rum, own-brand whisky is ageing in barrels in their distillery in East London as I type, and they import and sell many whiskies and bourbons from small batch distilleries across the Atlantic.

Often the distilleries they buy from are so small that once they sell what they have of a particular brand, it's finished and not available for the next year or so. As dedicated distillers, they know exactly what is involved in the whisky-making process and are experts at choosing the best small batch whisky available.

Go and check them out, and guarantee yourself a guid new year and many more to come.