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A singular taste

Anoothi Vishal  |  New Delhi 

Peaty or smoky, fresh or sweet. On the rocks or with water. A five-figure sum for a peg of a certain brand. What is it that makes a single malt whisky so sought-after? Anoothi Vishal tries to find out

How would you describe that Talisker 25-year-old sitting in your collection? Or even the taste of a Glenmorangie 10 YO (year old) ? If the whisky that you are sipping is ‘peaty’ and ‘smoky’, is it a Highland or an Islay malt? If you like your Scotch fresh and sweet, what are the distilleries that you should look out for? Should you dilute your single malt with water? If you are in search of answers to some of these question (or dozens of other similar ones) but don’t quite know who to ask, despair not. It may be time for you to join a single malt club in your city.

It has often been said that there is more Black Label consumed in India than produced in Scotland and that, of course, may be quite the truth. But for a nation hooked on to Johnnie Walker’s potent blends, it is really surprising how much single malt whisky (typically made from a single type of malted grain aka barley, and distilled at a single distillery, necessarily in Scotland if it is to be labeled Scotch) has caught on in our midst of late. Go to any soiree worth its salt, or to any restaurant to entertain (or be entertained) and you will realise how passé BL is.

Indeed, whiskies like Cutty Sark or even Chivas may well be drinks of the past, so overarching is the current high society trend for single malt Scotch whisky; the rarer the better. After all, it is not for nothing that a hotel in Gurgaon recently bravely ventured forth to buy a bottle of Glenfiddich 50 YO for an astounding sum of Rs 11 lakh! How many of its customers will buy a 30 ml peg of this exclusive brew for a royal sum of Rs 60,000 is yet to be seen. But at least the brave men (and women) in the food and beverage business have shown ample faith in the purchasing power of the upwardly mobile Indian consumer.

It is another matter altogether that there are those in the whisky business who contend that there are some ‘creations’ intended solely for the Asian markets, where buyers with higher purchasing power and aspiration reside in today’s world. Sundry expensive blends of whisky may have been a result of companies wanting to create supposedly ‘exclusive’ — and much more expensive brands than the norm for a strictly aspirational audience. Even when it comes to single malts, it is also contended that whisky does not really age beyond 18 to 21 years and so anything older than that is essentially a product of marketing minds. But who is to account for taste — and individual discretion? In this day and age, if we have, we will sip!   

Of course, being able to buy good, even great, and certainly expensive whisky is no guarantee that you will be able to enjoy it ‘knowledgeably’: Which is where India’s growing tribe of single malt clubs steps in. The first was set up a couple of years ago, in maximum city Mumbai, by none other than columnist Anil Dharker. It had, and continues to, for its members a cosy network of CEOs and top managers, mavericks, admen, music directors, society movers and shakers, and generally those “who are well traveled and have thus acquired a taste for fine things,” as Aparna Batra, marketing director (Indian subcontinent) William Grant and Sons explains.

The latter has been sponsoring sessions with the members as well as other single malt enthusiasts elsewhere. In Delhi, it included the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) community led by the likes of entrepreneur Sanjay Kapur. And she is quite impressed by the lifestyle choices India’s young corporate bosses are now making. “Earlier, the typical group of single malt drinkers would be above 40, now, even 20-year-olds are trying it,” she points out. Batra adds that she was surprised at how easily people could differentiate between a Balvenie 17 YO and a 24 YO at a tasting recently. Clearly, India is gaining in sophistication.

But if you thought that such clubs — and sophistication — were to be found only in cosmopolitan metros like Mumbai, you couldn’t be more wrong. In Chandigarh, bureaucrat Navneet Kang has got together a motley bunch with much success. The Single Malt Club of Chandigarh was formed in 2007 and today has 16 full- fledged members including bureaucrats, legal professionals, businessmen and ‘progressive farmers’. Currently under the chairmanship of Gurpreet Singh Gill, the club may not be a legal entity but has a definite set of rules and regulations. Entry is only stag; the time for the ‘meetings’ is fixed, only water and whisky is to be served, not other drinks and spouses are allowed only on one annual occasion. Members meet once a month at each other’s homes and the host serves up a minimum of three whiskies. Tasting notes are circulated beforehand so that members can appreciate their single malt better and the sessions seem to be simple but fairly structured where whisky is the high point and like-minded ‘gentlemen’ gather in earnest to understand it.

At a recent gathering, for instance, explains Yogesh Kochar, a director with Microsoft India, who is passionate about bringing together under one umbrella all the informal single malt clubs operating in the country, the contents of three different scotch bottles were divided up, in shot glasses, between members who were then asked to compare notes. Eats were kept to a minimum with just a couple of cold cuts. After partaking of all that single malt talk, members sat down to hear a Sufi rendition by a Pakistani artist — on a big screen.

These are the kind of quiet evenings that members of the clubs seem to savour. Indeed, these tend to go well with the whole spirit of single malts — that need to be sipped and enjoyed in tranquility. And while most clubs and allied marketing activities abroad are typically pushed by distilleries, as Kochar points out, in India, where getting your hands on single malts beyond the common few is still tough — thanks to tough government controls — it is a band of passionate single malt drinkers which is driving these groups. Most clubs like the Chandigarh one, or like another new entrant, the Single Malt Society of Gurgaon founded by Bish Mukherjee, are relatively intimate groups of friends or friends of friends all of whom share a common interest.

Networking and socialising may be the byproducts of such gatherings, often comprising some of the most influential people in the city, but, as Kochar adds, “that can’t drive the clubs or it will kill these”. To separate the wheat from the chaff, Kochar, who is planning to go online, says that his club may typically have three chat rooms, with members (screened and nominated by at least six other members) progressing from the first to the third levels depending on their understanding and ‘growth’. Well, this is one growth curve all the top honchos will no doubt look out for.


How delicate is your love?

“Don’t shock her with ice,” say the instructions on Cardhu. Like wine, single malts are now meant to be handled with care. Of course, you may not subscribe to any strict notions of how to taste your whisky and whether indeed it ‘goes well’ with fish or fowl. Instead, what you may want to focus on, suggest single malt drinkers, are two basic characteristics of your drink: First, how ‘delicate’ or ‘smoky’ is it? Two, how ‘light’ or ‘rich’ is it? Recently, we came across a useful way of plotting single malts according to their taste on a grid.

Imagine a simple grid with Delicate to Smoky moving up the vertical axis, and Light to Rich across the horizontal axis. All single malts can be plotted on the resultant four quadrants. So, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich fall in the bottom left quadrant (light and delicate). Talisker and Caol Ila are in the top left quadrant (light and smoky). Glenmorangie and Macallan are in the bottom right quadrant (light and rich). But it’s in the top right quadrant — smoky and rich — that you are said to find the most interesting of single malts, like Lagavulin, Cragganmore and the ‘brooding’ Bowmore. And we’re told that probably the best buy in Edinburgh is at Royal Mile Whiskies, where you can pick up little taster bottles of every major single malt.

Malt spotting

Laying your hands on many single malts in retail may be tough in states like Delhi where liquor laws (and vends) continue to be archaic. You will have to rely on duty free shopping for your booty. But, in states like Maharashtra and Haryana where private liquor shops are operational, you can get a decent selection.

750 ml, 18 yrs 
Rs 9,050
750 ml, 15 yrs 
Rs 6,725
700 ml, 12 yrs 
Rs 5,041
750 ml, 12 yrs 
Rs 5,100
750 ml, 12 yrs 
Rs 5,100
750 ml, 10 yrs 
Rs 4,950
750 ml, 12 yrs 
Rs 4,700
750 ml, 10 yrs 
Rs 4,700
750 ml, 18 yrs 
Rs 4,200
1 ltr, 12 yrs 
Rs 4,550
750 ml, 10 yrs 
Rs 3,750
1 ltr, 10 yrs 
Rs 4,232

If you are into collecting single malts, there is a plethora of options to choose from: Glenmorangie (from the Scottish Highlands) and Ardbeg Uigeadail (supposedly, the ultimate Islay malt) both come from the house of Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Glenlivet (12 years, 15 years and 18 years; from Speyside) is from the Pernod Ricard stable.

There are many more whiskies such as Talisker (from Diageo; 10, 18, 25, 30 years), Lagavulin (16 years), Cragganmore (12 years); Dalwhinnie (15 years); Glenkinchie (12 years); Oban (14 years); Cardhu (12 years); and Glen Elgin (12 years) not to mention Glenfiddich and Balvenie (Speyside) from William Grant & Sons.

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First Published: Sat, September 18 2010. 00:15 IST