The etymology behind ‘Kuchh Nai’ whisky is legion in the North Indian cocktail circuit. Alas, while this unremarkable whisky is well-known, Sukh-inder Singh, a legend in the whisky fraternity, thanks to a popular whisky store in London, is nearly anonymous here. While single malts continue to gain ground, most drinkers in India — even the ones who invest serious money — tend to be largely ill-informed and harbour several misplaced notions on the subject.
A 25-year-old whisky is perceived to be ‘better’ than a 12-year-old merely because of vintage. Glenfiddich is considered to be an average whisky simply because its commonplace, and most hosts tend to serve whisky in tumblers as opposed to malt copitas/snifters. I actually once had a Jor Bagh resident (I’m afraid that’s how he introduced himself) deride Macallan Elegancia since it was available at the “pedestrian” Delhi duty free since he preferred to buy his whiskies only from Heathrow! In this piece, I seek to dispel some of these myths and also put forth few of the discussion items within the whisky community in other parts of the world.
Globally, single malt marketers have never really had it better in terms of demand. In fact, some blenders are having trouble searching for alternates, as several distilleries are better off selling the malt after bottling it as opposed to supplying it for blends. The first talking point is vintage. In an online whisky forum that I am part of, we frequently debate if anything aged for more than 18 years is worth buying since most of the stuff in the casks that is worthy of bottling is bottled and sold by that age. Many experts rate the 18 YO Glenfiddich well ahead of the 21 YO. For a vintage whisky to justify its sharp premium, it ought to have a perceptibly richer mouthfeel and the benefits of increased interaction with wood should be palpable. Merely aging a whisky in the cask for more number of years is no guarantee of this.
Personally, I would recommend one either researches a high vintage purchase thoroughly or plumps for Independent Bottlings from the likes of Signatory or Gordon & Macphail. These independent bottlers typically send experts to other distilleries who then select the best casks (while they are young) and age them carefully. They retain the name of the original brand on the bottling alongwith their own. More often than not, a 30-year-old Signatory bottling would be more reliable than an official bottling which is likely to have followed more of an assembly line process. Like in the case of wine, there are select vintages of whisky too which are considered more valuable, either because of historical significance or strong recommendations from master tasters. One is well advised to stick to some of these recommendations in case one is keen on spending top dollar for a vintage whisky.
The other trend that is gaining ground is that of wood finishes where the whisky is aged for the last two to three years in a separate cask in which sherry, wine or even rum has been previously matured. Glenmorangie has been a pioneer in marketing these whiskies with a varied range of finishes. Diageo has a range of ‘Distiller Edition’ whiskies for their ‘classic malts’ range. The Lagavulin Distiller edition for instance is matured in Pedro Ximenez (a dark, sweet sherry) casks for the last two years. I find wood finishes generally end up adding a needless amount of sweetness to a whisky and in fact subtract from the core character of a malt. However, I’m in a minority here as these finishes are becoming increasingly popular, especially among those who are just switching from blends to malts.
The colour of a whisky too is often assumed to be from the wood in the cask. This is seldom true, with most whiskies being artificially coloured with caramel. Caramel ensures consistency in whisky from a particular distillery without materially impacting taste. There are puritanical distilleries like Bruichladdich which refrain from any artificial colouring but they are exceptions rather than the rule. Most distilleries have also begun releasing ‘cask-strength’ malts. Not for the faint-hearted, these releases typically have alcohol percentages that are in the whopping 55-60 per cent range as they are not watered down to the more acceptable 46 per cent ABV. While cask-strength whiskies generally have a firmer body and one gets to experience a fuller range of flavours, not all of them have the right balance. The Aberlour ‘Abunadh’ (means ‘from the origin’ in Gaelic) is one of the better-marketed cask strength whiskies. The Glenfarclas 105 is also popular though I feel it is not properly balanced and should have spent a few more years in the cask.
Coming back to glasses, if you are serious about your malts you need to throw away the tumblers and acquire a set of malt glasses. Typically shaped like a tulip, there are a variety of glasses available from most distilleries. Glencairn is a special breed of malt glasses that are really popular with whisky clubs. In case you are unable to find them, you will be able to enjoy the aroma of your malts better in brandy snifters as opposed to the regular tumblers. Come to think of it, have you ever been served wine in a beer glass?
(Mahesh Misra is the founder of the Delhi Single Malts Club)