It seems that Kex has become the Mecca of regional drinking holidays and beer events. They host one of the best Oktoberfest celebrations in all the land and the latest plume in Kex’s bonnet is an annual three-day Burns supper celebration: a boozy ritual of haggis, single malt whisky and incomprehensible poetry that celebrates Scottish heritage and the birth of poet Robert Burns, the finest lyrical genius to come out of Scotland until the Bay City Rollers. He has become a cultural icon, the kind of virile romantic polymath that paved the way for superstar poets like Lord Byron and Justin Bieber. A massive drinking festival celebrating poetry and art instead of dead saints or bloody battles? Sign me up!
At the core of the celebration is the ball of oats, lungs, hearts, liver and onions called haggis. It’s basically a dolled up version of our dour Icelandic “lifrarpylsa.” The ceremonial cutting of the haggis is what sets off the celebration and this is what you will be munching on during the accompanying poetry recitals, bagpipes, singing and heroic levels of whisky consumption. And like anything with bagpipes and boiled intestines, it’s not for the faint of heart.
Scottish musicians were flown in for the occasion and this time around the music was in the hands of pianist Bill Wells and the National Jazz Trio of Scotland, bagpipe player Barnaby Brown and singer Alasdair Roberts, along with Icelandic singer-songwriters Benni Hemm hemm and Snorri Helgason. All of them did an amazing job and delivered ladelfuls of thick highland atmosphere for the duration.
The whole vintage hipster brigade was in attendance, the whole crowd associated with the (excellent) men’s fashion store Herrafataverzlun Kormáks & Skjaldar, along with some figures from Reykjavík city politics and the leader (“Allsherjargoði”) of the Ásatrú heathen society. Above the front desk of the hostel was a prohibition era bulletin board sporting the twitter hashtag for the event. Kex is a place the grimy past and our brave new world clash in strange and wonderful ways.
The Burns supper menu consisted of leek soup with beurre noir, highland lamb stew and, of course, haggis with mashed rutabaga (“neeps”) and potatoes (“tatties”).
The leek soup was thick as a brain-damaged chicken and buttery beyond belief. The stack of drenched shredded lamb was surprisingly gentle and tender. Absolutely delicous although equally rich and filling as the haggis and leek. The haggis was perfect. Along with the usual sheep bits the haggis contained beef suet (raw fat collected from around the kidneys), Irish pinhead oatmeal, white pepper and a thick whisky sauce. The result was a crumbly haggis which coated the roof of the mouth and delivered a solid peppery warmth. My only complaint is that the rutabaga could have been cooked a little longer, but maybe that’s just because I’m used them cooked to a mush according to the Icelandic tradition.
To wash the food down we were given a taste of the new juniper bock. The dark and malty ale made exclusively for Kex Hostel went perfectly with the hearty peasant food. The floral tones were on a hoppsier base than I normally get from the bock beers. The juniper taste eluded me, though.
The whisky we chose was the Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood, a solid single malt whisky that’s aged in an oak whisky cask before being moved to a Spanish sherry cask that gives it a hint of sherry wood. Then they broke out a free Grants whisky taster and things started getting a bit hazy.
Kex have outdone themselves with this event and I sincerely hope this tradition is here to stay. But what other drinking festivals could Kex adopt? Maybe a Rio-style Carnival celebration with cachaça cocktails and scantily-clad dancers? Or a Cinco de Mayo with ceviche and smoky mescal cocktails. Or the Jewish Purim festival where you can dress up in wacky costumes, give to the poor, eat poppy pastries and drink until your memory glands come gushing out of your moyl. The possibilities are endless.
However, in light of the Midwestern Prohibition-era decor at Kex and the penchant of patrons for old timey menswear, I would like to suggest an annual celebration of the Kentucky Derby. We can all meet up and watch the race while lounging around with mint juleps in silver goblets, dressed in vomit-speckled seersucker suits and the whole affair would rapidly collapse into the kind of debauchery outlined in Hunter Thompson’s seminal article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”.
You don’t have to decide right now but promise me you will think about it.