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For the love of Scotch

In Scotland, as in India, Scotch is more than just a drink. It’s a religion. And like all religions, it requires a ceremony like none other. Vir Sanghvi talks about attending one such ceremony recently in the heart of the Scotch whisky establishment.

brunch Updated: Nov 08, 2014 21:04 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Vir Sanghvi,Scotch Whisky,Scotland

It is a strange thing to say but there are only two countries in the world where Scotch whisky is more than just an alcoholic drink. The first is, of course, Scotland. Scotch is that nation’s greatest product, its finest export and the one drink that places a relatively small country in the top league of the world’s nations.The other, oddly enough, is India. We like to think that the Raj bequeathed us the legacy of Scotch-drinking, but I’m not so sure.

The British drank a lot of gin when they were in India (tonic water was invented here and so was that great mixed drink gin and tonic) and yet there’s not much gin consumed in India these days.

We prefer vodka which has no British connection. Prohibition in the post-independence era made Scotch seem like the forbidden fruit. Despite police raids and anti-smuggling drives, the Indian thirst for Scotch was so insatiable that the smugglers found it worth their while to persist.

And often they mixed Indian whisky with Scotch and passed it off as the real thing. In the process, Scotch became much more than a mere drink. It became a measure of several other things.

The most obvious of these was class. If you thought of yourself as upper middle class, then you served Scotch to your guests, no matter how much it stretched your budget because Indian whisky was socially unacceptable.

If you wanted to indicate wealth in Hindi cinema, then you made sure your character had a bottle of Scotch (Vat 69, usually!) on view somewhere in his house. If you gave a valued friend a present, then nothing worked better than a bottle of Scotch.

In the process, a whole Scotch sub-culture developed. One of my parents’ close friends was the editor and bon vivant RK Karanjia (the founder-editor of Blitz) who only served and drank Scotch.

If he went to a party where they were serving Indian whisky, he asked for rum instead. If the Scotch was dodgy, as it so often was in these days, he wasted it after a single sip.

As the great and classy Tiger Pataudi used to joke, many Indians were uncomfortable drinking Scotch outside of India because "it tastes very different from what we are used to here."

Atholl Highlanders form guard of honour outside Blair Castle

Though my father was a dedicated Scotch drinker – Chivas Regal mainly – it took me a while to get into the whisky culture because it seemed so grown-up and sophisticated.

But fortunately for my generation, liberalisation removed many of the old barriers to the import of Scotch. Not only did we have access to the finest whiskies from Scotland, we could discover the single malts that were never available in India in the old days.

And with liberalisation came choice. My father bought his Chivas abroad, at duty-free shops and I hardly saw it served at most Indian homes, even those of the very rich.

Later I discovered one possible explanation. In the old days, Chivas was owned by Seagrams which was owned by the Jewish Bronfman family.

We put our hand on the Quaich to take a solemn vow to uphold the traditions of the Keepers

So no smuggler in Dubai was even willing to touch it, let alone pass it on to his associates in India. (Seagrams has since been taken over by the entirely gentile French company Pernod-Ricard but nobody needs smugglers any longer in the era of liberalised imports.)

When you talk to the pioneers of the legitimate Scotch whisky business in India, they have fascinating stories to tell about how difficult it was to broaden people’s tastes and to get them to try new whiskies (including single malts) in the years after liberalisation.

Torquhil Campbell, the Thirteenth Duke of Argyll, came to India in the 1990s to sell Chivas

Torquhil Campbell (well, his full title is The Thirteenth Duke of Argyll) came here in the Nineties from London to sell Chivas only to find that Indians had not been allowed to develop a taste for it because the smugglers steered clear of Bronfman-related products.

Peter Prentice started out selling J&B Scotch, which nobody in India had heard of, but by the time he switched to marketing Chivas, he found that Indians were more receptive to quality.

And a new generation which had no memory of the dodgy so-called Scotch sold by ‘smugglers’ showed a genuine interest in learning more about blended Scotch and rare single malts.

It was Peter who put me up for membership of The Keepers of the Quaich. This is a body in the heart of the Scotch whisky establishment with about 3,000 (at best) members from around the world who are chosen for their appreciation of “the great cause of Scotch whisky.”

Something like 95 per cent of the Keepers are whisky professionals and after 10 years of membership the most distinguished Keepers are chosen as Masters of the Quaich.

The society is taken very seriously by the whisky world, membership is subject to rigorous screening by the management committee and every big name in the whisky world is a member.

Peter Prentice started out by selling J&B Scotch

For instance, this year, they made Diageo boss, Ivan Menezes a Master and the Keepers included people like Andrew Lindsay who supplied the finest quality grain to Chivas Brothers for their whisky.

So I was somewhat sceptical when Peter made me fill in a nomination form. But obviously their selection process is not infallible and so I found myself at Blair Castle, near Edinburgh for the investiture ceremony.

This turned out to be more elaborate than I had imagined. The guests were in evening dress, which in the case of the Scots meant kilts and in the case of Torquhil, meant full Ducal regalia including the silver salmon symbol that has been the mark of his people for over a thousand years.

Foreigners wore black tie (except for Ivan Menezes who carried off his kilt with style – clearly he’s been doing this for a long time!) and the women were expected to wear long gowns with the sash of the Quaich.

We were led to a large room in the castle where we lined up till each of us was called to put his hand on the Quaich (a large silver bowl, basically) and to take a solemn vow to uphold the traditions of the Keepers.

Then, they pinned a medal on each of us, we shook hands with Lord Dalhousie, the Grandmaster of the Quaich (it all sounds vaguely Masonic in the retelling, I admit) and then we wandered off for a full-on banquet in the Scottish style with marching soldiers, military bands (bagpipers etc) an ode to the haggis (a Scottish delicacy that, regrettably, has limited appeal to non-Scots), formal toasts and finally entertainment which ended with Lord Bruce keeping up his family’s tradition of leading the Keepers in a performance of ‘Scotland Yet’.

This is a patriotic song but I’m not sure how seriously we were meant to take it as the instructions were: "To stand during the first verse, stand on the chair during the second verse and for the third, to have one foot on the chair and one foot on the table."

The high spot of the banquet was – as you might imagine – the whiskies. We drank Naked Grouse (auld blend) Haig Club (single grain), Benriach Authenticus (25 years old), The Glenrothes (1995) and my personal favourite Aberlour (16 years).

The investiture ceremony for The Keepers of the Quaich is followed by a banquet and entertainment

There were other parties too – including one hosted by the Duke of Argyll – and I was grateful for the opportunity to taste more rare whiskies throughout my stay in Edinburgh.

Did I deserve to be a Keeper in this august company? Probably not, though of course I’m grateful that they inducted me and invited me to Scotland.

But I guess that there was a message behind my induction. It was Scotland’s way of telling India that it recognised the very special role Scotch whisky has played in Indian drinking habits.

Our two countries are not yet united by independence from the English (Scotland voted ‘no’ around a fortnight before I got there). But we are united by our love of whisky.

From HT Brunch, November 9
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First Published: Nov 08, 2014 18:36 IST