I discovered malt whisky rather late in life. We grew up watching elders drinking Aristocrat, Haywards, McDowell's No 1 and such brands of amber liquid that passed off as whisky. Vat 69 was seen only in Hindi movies during the routine cabaret sequences (the precursor to today’s “item numbers”) when a sultry seductress entertained a lustful villain. It still conjures up images of Ajit – the legendary 'loin' (sic) and Helen the quintessential 'vamp' (the term in vogue at that time when political correctness was lax) of Bollywood. It was mandatory for relatives living abroad to bring a bottle or two of Scotch on their annual vacations to India. It was generally a lowly White Horse or Johnnie Walker Red Label. When they brought a Chivas Regal, considered top of line, it was time for celebration. A special evening was set aside for a gathering of the extended family where capfuls of the magic potion would be apportioned to the male folk before descending to the regular local tipple.
When we came of age, the situation had improved by a few notches or, shall we say, pegs. The old popular brands were upgraded to new labels such as Bagpiper and Officer’s Choice that carried the tagline “blended with genuine Scotch whisky”. Truth be told, none of those were whiskies. Most IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor’ or ‘Angrezi Sharab’) was in fact coloured and flavoured extra-neutral (ethyl) alcohol (ENA) produced from distilled molasses. I have been to Indian distilleries where a few bottles of cheap Scotch would be added into giant vats for token compliance with marketing claims. Whisky by definition is made from grains like malted barley, corn, wheat and rye. It is only now that good whiskies are being produced in India due to availability of grain alcohol and relaxation of import restrictions for peated malts. But let us not mix poetry, as whisky lovers consider the elixir of life to be, with mundane chemistry.
My love affair with single malts began in Nepal at the cusp of the new millennium when the customs duties on imported liquor in India were exorbitant. One had to gather supplies during the occasional overseas trips or source from bootleggers. That was the era when it was said there was more Johnnie Walker Black Label sold in India than manufactured in Scotland – implying that most of it was spurious. So when my company transferred me to Nepal in the late 1990s, the country was like a huge duty-free shop with even grocery stores stocking the best of foreign whiskies, wines and other spirits.
My Newari friends in Kathmandu were a merry lot. They freely altered their genetic tree in jest. When gorging on wild boar (Bandel), they would claim Gaulic ancestry. While gobbling momos, they would turn decidedly Asian. But guzzling raksi, the traditional rice spirit made from kodo millet or rice, turned them fiercely chauvinistic. They thought the Scots could learn a thing or two about alcohol distillation from the Newari women. Each family has its secret recipe and adds its own twist to the fermentation method and distillation technique, resulting in subtle differences in taste and alcohol concentration. That starts the fraternal rivalry about whose mother or grandmother makes better raksi. The beginning of Scotch whisky they insist was equally humble. It all started as small home distilleries that were often the source of illicit liquor like back home in India - either to evade taxes or beat prohibition laws. Over time, these grew into commercial institutions with proprietary brands.
However, distillation is only half the story of whisky. The plot thickens through the process of maturing which is what gives each brand, nay bottle, of whisky its character. But before going there, let us touch upon the most discussed topic about “smokiness” or ‘peatiness’ that amateur single malt drinkers obsess about. The smoky flavour is imbibed from the peat fire used to dry malted barley. This is a method used in the Islay island which has plentiful supplies of peat - which is essentially bogs, sedges and moss. Here the water too carries traces of peat giving the distillate a strong peaty flavour. A similar quality of peat is not available in the highlands and Speyside - where they use clear spring water.
Like raksi or local hooch in any country, it is believed that originally whisky too was tapped directly from stills and drunk hot. Sometimes the Scots would dump some pieces of stone into the tumblers to take out the heat. From there comes the expression of “on the rocks”. The temperature as we know makes all the difference in taste. Think of a hot Coke or cold milky tea and you will get the idea. But we digress. The real magic of whisky happens through the process of maturing which was traditionally done in sherry casks that impart flavour. Now, a wide range of casks are used from Bourbon to beer, wine, ale and other spirits. Each imparts its distinctive note to the whisky ranging from fruity, spicy, fragrant or sometimes even medicinal. Often whiskies are transferred to different casks during the maturing process. That's what “Double” or “Triple” cask signifies on the label. A lot happens during the period of storage due to changes in weather, moisture, salt and other elements in the air. Temperature fluctuations change the rate of evaporation and alcohol content which, in turn, affect the taste and strength of whisky.
Here comes the role of the master blenders who are the true artists adjusting multiple variables to achieve desired results. A whisky is all about its body, feel, taste, flavour and complex aroma – which come together to make the total experience more than the sum of its parts. It has to be savoured with every sensory bud of the palate. That is what the distillers and blenders play around with to reinvent old classics or create nouvelle editions.
Too much is made about the age of whisky. But age is just a number. Sometimes a brand claims its age is 12 or 18 years by just adding a drop of that vintage into the mix. You eat an apple for its taste and not for how long it took to ripen. The oldest whisky is not necessarily the best. So there is a trend towards “No Age Statement” (NAS) though some of it is driven by practical considerations of availability or the lack of certain vintages. But it also gives the blenders the room to play with the finished product. However, as per European standards, whisky should be aged for at least three years. This is the case with most “new world” whiskies including the Indian single malts. Japan is an exception as it has been perfecting the art of making fine whiskies for nearly a century and is now taking the world by storm. Japanese whiskies would require a separate treatise.
Single malts are by definition sourced from one specific distillery, as in the case of single estate tea or coffee. Blends on the other hand are a combination of whiskies from multiple distilleries which are balanced to deliver a consistent quality - again quite similar to popular brands of tea and coffee which are of mixed and variable origins. In contrast, the individuality of malts makes each one different. It has to be sipped at a leisurely pace to appreciate the nuances. It is best enjoyed in a tulip shaped glass that traps the aroma. Water impacts whisky by releasing flavour molecules. Connoisseurs and professional tasters, therefore, try whiskies by adding water in drops till it “opens up”. But adding soda to a malt is nothing short of sacrilege. A cube or two of ice may be ok to achieve the right temperature in hot climates. But not more since as the ice melts it can change the whisky and ruin its character.
In social situations and parties, I always shun single malts. Gulping down a pure malt is tantamount to insulting the whisky and a breach of etiquette. It is better to stick to blends that one drinks primarily for taste and not for their esoteric qualities. Malt has to be enjoyed like listening to Beethoven or Mozart. As I joke - why waste a malt if the purpose is to simply get high or just feel good?