Spirit guide: Take a single-malt tour with Kunal Vijayakar
Drinking whiskey and the ability to appreciate it needs a certain amount of years. Nobody’s first drink or debut slug is ever whiskey. The starter poison is often a glass of beer or wine. I started my outstanding and proficient drinking career with beer. I was just about two and have photographic evidence of that investiture. I hold my grandmother singularly responsible for my bond with alcohol.
All through early college, the poison remained beer. We invariably finished classes around half-past-three and headed to one of three watering holes. Harvic, still desolate stands opposite Metro Cinema in Dhobi Talao. Nobody seems to ever go there and that suited us quite well. A bunch of us boys and girls would retreat into the windowless family room in the afternoon and emerge swaying happily only after all the street lights had come on. The food was nothing to speak of, but the beer was cold and cheap.
On a more cheerful day, we’d troop to Kala Ghoda in time to occupy the only eight-seater table at the deep end of the now closed Samovar Café. By the time the crickets in the museum grounds had started chirping, we’d be many kheema parathas, mutton rolls and bottles of beer down.
If it was a holiday and if the gang decided to meet closer to where I lived, at Chowpatty, then it was Café Ideal. Café Ideal still has the distinction of being the only vegetarian Irani café in Mumbai. That’s because the building it housed in, is for vegetarians only.Its windows run from floor to ceiling with views of the beach and we’d sit at one of the corner tables for hours. Apart from the hackneyed, veg-Chinese, veg-pizza-burger and veg- Mughlai fare, they do some Parsi preparations: omelettes, akuri, eggs on salli and a veg dhansak with kababs. But we frequented Café Ideal for the beer, the view and the occasional veg patti samosa stuffed with an indistinguishable sweet-spicy filling of onions and vegetables.
Cold beer was great. I never did like rum or Indian whiskey. Rum gave me an allergy and my palate scorned Director’s Special and other Indian Made Foreign Whiskies. I took to vodka for many years, because I could add any mixer to hide the taste; and gin, because I really liked Forbes Gin.
But at some point, I realised that I could afford the occasional Johnnie Walker Black Label or a few rounds of Teacher’s Highland Cream and my love for whiskey grew with every passing year. There is something about a non-pilfered bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, bought from a duty-free store. Each sip is like nectar.
I am now much older and my friends have matured into sipping rare single malts, the most unique and expensive whiskies. With immense reluctance, and after being shamed by my friend Boman Irani on several occasions, I embarked on that journey too, and I now thank Boman, for buying my ticket.
It’s been an exploration, from the spicy, fruity Speyside of Scotland, past the heather and smoke of the Highland malts, down the soft smooth Lowlands whiskies, to the peaty beasts of the Islays. I’m yet not an expert, but I’ve drunk a lot, in bars, at homes, even on a tasting tour on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and at distilleries at the northernmost tip of the British Isles and elsewhere.
No wonder I jumped at the opportunity to dine with old friends Antoine Lewis (food critic and author) and Hrishikesh Kannan (super star radio broadcaster) at Kode, Lower Parel, over a curated whiskey and food pairing.
We started with an Edradour Caledonia in a highball glass with one huge sphere of ice. A 12-year-old whiskey matured in sherry casks, it was sweet, creamy and honeyed, rich with notes of spicy, dry berries. It was paired with boneless chicken wings oozing with gorgonzola cheese.
Next, charcoal grilled prawns with garlic beurre blanc, with a debutante from the House of Glenmorangie. Spìos means ‘spice’ in Gaelic, and this one is bright and herbaceous, with notes of clove and nutmeg, and a rich oaky finish of pepper.
Then came miso-glazed pork ribs that fell off the bone, with a sesame crunch. They were paired with Quiet Man, an eight-year-old Irish whiskey finished in first-fill bourbon barrels. It had notes of white oak with sharp apple, honey and fudge, and a distinct malty, apricot, cinnamon and orange flavour.
We also tried Taiwan’s most famous single malt, a 12-year-old Kavalan distilled in copper stilts. The clean and fresh whiskey had a tropical fruitiness and was paired with duck confit, roasted root vegetables smeared with spicy date jus. And then a podgy spicy roasted gnocchi, with pumpkin and parsley cream, came with Millstone, a 10-year-old heavily peaty Dutch single malt from the Netherlands, matured in French Oak casks.
The finale was white chocolate with mango French toast, and a fake sunny side up egg, paired with a dessert snifter endowed with floral undertones of spice and sweetness, and a long smooth finish of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey Whiskey Liqueur.
We stumbled out into the dark, humid, oppressive night, realising we’d sampled only a minuscule portion of the wonderful world of whiskeys.