Stop and pause a while. Rewind to the golden 60s and 70s. Recall the masala films of Ajit and Pran, Prem Chopra and Rehman. Picture the perennial bar in the villain’s lair, stocked with all possible foreign brands — a Passport, Dewar, Black Label…and of course the quintessential VAT 69. No Bollywood film worth its tipple failed to show villains grabbing this green bottle with the stencilled label and enjoying its amber liquid.
This year, VAT 69 completes 125 years. And brand owner Diageo has launched a limited edition bottle as a ‘a tribute to its creator, William Sanderson’.
In a generation where everyone knows their Glenfiddich from their Chivas, VAT 69 evokes memories that clearly transcends all other Scotch whiskies. Mumbai-based bar consultant and liquor expert Shatbhi Basu recalls the brand as having a “very Bollywood perspective” because it took to it rather “dramatically”. Take 1966’s Dil Diya Dard Liya where Pran downs an entire bottle, or 1967’s Azad, which features Ajit and his favourite drink, which is, but of course, VAT 69. “It was always the villain who drank this rather than the hero,” she says. “Which is why we associate it with the bad guys all the time.”
Delhi-based whiskey connoisseur Sandeep Arora calls us “a nation of whisky drinkers who from the 60s through the 80s grew up with imported brands like these”. Which is why filmmaker Sriram Raghavan, whose films are inspired by James Hadley Chase novels where the protagonists’ choice of drink is always VAT 69, says, “I remember VAT 69 from the movies of the 70s. The likes of Ajit, Prem Chopra… The villains were usually smugglers and for some odd reason their bars were stocked with VAT 69. This was before the days of in-film advertising. Maybe it was the distinct dark green bottle and the logo that made an impact.”
Yesteryears’ favourite villain Prem Chopra can’t help chuckling to the memories of this Scotch whisky and adds that some of the scenes in the films had a bottle of VAT 69 just to depict the status of the person. “It was considered extremely prestigious to swig this drink since because no other good brand was available. But mind you, we never got to really drink the actual whisky because it was Coca-Cola which we actually got to drink!” he rues.
It wasn’t the barman but a sidekick who’d fix the ‘baass’ s drink, which was always served in cut-glass (“it was supposed to symbolise the richness of the whisky, but of course was not true”, says Arora) with a loud clink, fingers holding the glass would be adorned with garish rings and the ‘chee-ars’ would sound more like a battle cry.
But the brand wasn’t just about the status for the villain; it went beyond that and depicted an era that has flown by. It belonged to a generation that was simplistic. Arora muses, “It was an aspirational brand, a Scotch picked up by an aunt or uncle who went to ‘Englaand’, ‘Caneda’ or ‘Haang Kaang’. It was carried back home with a lot of pride. After the bottle was drained of its contents, people used it as a flower vase or poured cheaper whisky into and pretended to have served you the real thing. Life was simpler then, you drank your whisky and you ate your food.”
Perhaps its just nostalgia but a peep into the darker recesses of a family bar might yield a bottle. Go one, pour yourself a stiff one, and remember the good old times.