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Young people ought to appreciate single malt whisky

A new generation must learn to appreciate malt whisky for its own strengths - not just because it has more snob value, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: Dec 14, 2013 20:08 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Whisky,Malt whisky,Grand Crus

I used to think that the food and wine people I loathed the most were wine snobs. You know the kind I mean: the guys who talk about fine wine as though they drink it every day, toss around the names of famous Grand Crus, and then look pityingly at the rest of us for having to drink cheap plonk.

But now I've found another lot who I hate even more: whisky bores. And sadly, there are many, many more whisky bores than there are wine snobs because good wine is hard to get hold of in India, while premium whisky is freely available. And whisky bores have been around from time immemorial. When I was growing up during the license-quota-permit raj, it was the old buffers who bragged about how they only drank Scotch and then produced some duty-free brand like Passport to show how sophisticated they were. Then it became the nouveau riche millionaires who bought adulterated Black Label from their smugglers, couldn't tell the difference, and then boasted about how they only served us the best.

In recent years, a new kind of bore has supplanted the old-style whisky bragger. This is the malt whisky bore. Usually, this kind of person is male, over 40- (or more likely, 50) plus, well-off, has travelled a little and is inordinately proud of the glasses he has stacked up at home. He is eager to prove to you that he is far superior to the average whisky drinker and laughs out aloud when you mention a really good blended Scotch like, say, Royal Salute. "I only drink malts," he says, sneeringly. And then he holds forth about some obscure little malt whisky you have never heard of ("bahut hi limited production hain - but I have got a bottle") and lectures you on how much water to mix with whisky (yawn!).

I'm not the world's greatest whisky drinker so I tend to lose interest in these conversations very quickly. But even I can tell that most of these malt whisky lovers are bull-shitters. Give them whiskies at a blind tasting and most of them will ignore the malt and say that they prefer a whisky that turns out to be Solan No. 1 or Black Knight or something like that. (Do they still make whisky in Solan? These are all names from my childhood.)

I don't know a lot about whisky - plans to visit distilleries in Scotland keep getting put off or cancelled - but I do know the basics. Most distilleries in Scotland turn out malt whiskies. The character of these whiskies varies from distillery to distillery and from region to region. (Which is why you will hear about Speyside or Islay etc.)

For many years, a blended whisky was considered Scotland's crowning achievement. Master blenders picked malts from various distilleries and blended them together to create what they regarded as the perfect blend. That is how most of today's great whiskies were born.

Malt whiskies were available if you knew where to find them but the malt whisky boom is essentially a 20th century phenomenon. That is when liquor companies began to push them. But they were treated as a minority interest. And nobody made the absurd claim that malt whisky was better than blended whisky.

Then, in the 1970s, sales of whisky and other brown spirits began falling in America (a key market for Scotch) as younger people moved to white spirits (vodka mainly but also tequila and white rum), which were regarded as trendier and hipper.

The whisky industry suffered for a while but then plotted its comeback. This consisted of focusing on new brown-spirit-friendly markets (Asia, for instance and India in particular) where whisky still remained an aspirational drink. The whisky companies also introduced new brands and product differentiators. The idea was to allow people to drink whiskies that seemed different from those their fathers loved and to introduce a new snob culture for the whisky drinker. So age was used (by Chivas, mainly) as an easy indicator of quality. ("Is your whisky eight years old?" "Well, mine is 22 years old" etc).
And malt whiskies began to be treated like single vineyard wines, the purest essence of whisky. That's when all this malt whisky snobbery began. And now the craze has spread around the world. I know people who swear by Japanese malt whiskies., if you fall into the trap of believing that any malt is better than every blend, you are just being silly. There are good malts and bad malts. And there are well-blended popular whiskies and lots of rubbish aimed mainly at, say, the Chinese market.

My friend, the journalist-author Anil Dharker, has been a lover of whisky for as long as I have known him. Many, many years ago, before every lala with a fat paunch began holding forth about how expensive his preferred whisky was, Anil started a malt whisky club. In those days, good whisky was not easy to come by so the club had an arrangement. The meetings would be held once a month and would rotate between the homes of members. Each member would provide the hospitality and the whisky when his turn came. But because there were around two dozen members, this was not asking too much. A member got his turn once every two years and in the interim he could enjoy the whiskies other people served. (Oddly enough, says Anil, it was the relatively less rich members who made the best hosts. The wealthy fund managers tended to shirk their turns.)

Now that whisky is big business and every global drinks multinational is trying to push malt whisky in India, Anil's club is much in demand but the membership seems solidly restricted to what I regard as the old South Bombay elite.

I went a couple of weeks ago to a Glenlivet tasting that Anil's club had organised at Bombay's Trident Hotel. In the old days, the club had the dinosaur-like slogan, 'no soda, no women', but these are modern times and so there were ladies present. The attendance though was the solidly professional South Bombay permanent elite (Monica and Charles Correa, Michael Mascarenhas, etc.)

Ian Logan, described as the International Brand Ambassador of Chivas Brothers, had flown down to take the club through three versions ("expressions") of Glenlivet, none of which is in the market yet. The idea as far as I could tell was for aficionados of Glenlivet in 20 markets to try these three versions and then pick their favourite. The version selected by the most people would then be bottled in a special limited edition called Glenlivet Guardians Chapter. (Only 2,000 cases of this whisky will be sold on the market). sat in a banquet room and tried all three. Ian said that the ideal way to try a malt was 50 per cent whisky and 50 per cent water, which drew howls of outrage from whisky club members who believed (as I did) that the best way to taste whisky is with just a touch of water. But Ian does this for a living, so nobody quarrelled with him for too long.

I'm not a great taster of malts, but from what I could tell, Glenlivet Classic, the first of the three whiskies had toffee notes, the second Revival had fruit notes and the third Exotic had spice. The people doing the tasting around me liked Revival but my guess is that Asians will prefer Exotic, with its hints of spice if the tastings are more widespread.

The Glenlivet folks seemed excited by the event. After coming across so many malt whisky bores, it must have been a relief to be in a room with people who actually knew something about single-malt whisky. But equally, I suspect Glenlivet's real challenge is to take the cult of malt whisky to a younger generation that doesn't really understand the concept.

Eventually the bores and the snobs will die out. And a new generation must learn to appreciate malt whisky for its own strengths - not just because it has more snob value than a good blended whisky.

From HT Brunch, December 15

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First Published: Dec 14, 2013 13:00 IST