‘The new cocktails show off a mixologist’s creativity’
The Blue Blazer, prepared in the 19th century, is a variation of the whisky punch, with a touch of drama thrown in by firing up the whisky in one silver cup and then passing it back and forth with another cup containing water, causing a shimmering blue flame to pass between the two. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and is done rarely these days by bartenders. I’m just mentioning it to illustrate the role whisky has played in the evolution of not just the cocktail, but also in flair bartending, which is the extreme form of performance for a bartender. In fact, one of the oldest cocktails to make it into print in the early 1800s was the Old-Fashioned, which combined rye whiskey, bitters and sugar to devastating and long-lasting effect (substitute the rye with scotch and you’ve got a New Fashioned).
The cocktail culture in India is still relatively nascent, and would probably be at least 3-4 years behind London or New York, which are the centres of the cocktail universe. Cocktails, to many in India, are drinks to be had by women and made primarily from white spirits.
But gradually, as the Indian male weaned on whisky and rum opens his palate to the different tastes and flavours which a cocktail can conjure up, he is getting hooked. Given that we now have an increasing cocktail drinking (and making) population, there isn’t a drastic shift required to get them to drink whisky cocktails. Maybe the trick is merely in revealing to them post-consumption what they’ve drunk!
An international whisky guru told me about a conversation he had in Guangzhou with Peter Kendall, a consultant mixologist with Diageo. Peter makes a distinction between “classic” whisky cocktails (Rob Roy, Old-Fashioned, Whisky Sour, etc.) and “new” cocktails. In the former, the additional flavours do not hide the base of the whisky—they are designed to “show off” the whisky. In the latter, the cocktails demonstrate the creativity of the individual mixologist; flavours contrast and complement the spirit, balancing sweet and sour, often using fresh fruit.
What would the Kentucky Derby be without the Mint Julep or Ireland without Irish Coffee? Which form of whisky to use for cocktails is probably a more pertinent question than whether to use whisky or not. Mixologists—surprise, surprise—differ, but you will find that most of the older classic whisky cocktails, such as the Old-Fashioned or the Manhattan, use rye whiskey as the base, and subsequently Bourbon.
Yangdup Lama, one of India’s top mixologists, claims that from a bartender’s perspective, he would far prefer to make cocktails with Bourbon as a base, as most Bourbons have a consistent taste profile and he knows therefore what he’ll get as an end result. Given the variety of Scotch whiskies available in the market, and their different flavours, it’s more difficult to ensure this.
Speaking from a local perspective, experience has shown that white spirit brands have taken the lead in the cocktail space, and have been seducing whisky consumers to shift loyalties. Maybe it’s time whisky fought back with its own cocktails!
(The author is co-founder and CEO of www.tulleeho.com ,a drinks website, and Tulleeho, a beverage consultancy)
‘Malts are best enjoyed on their own’
Imagine romancing a robust and juicy steak, embraced in crushed garlic, sprinkled with twinkling green pepper corns, lathered with a lush, silky sauce, peppered with mushrooms, grilled to perfection over wood smoke, with fresh garden vegetables, snow peas and soft potatoes accompanying it almost like bridesmaids. It’s enjoyed in delicate china with a glass of fine wine. Until a sharp voice breaks into your meditation and serves you an Amritsari kulcha and sharp mango pickle with raw onions, to eat with the steak! Imagine the feeling.
Whisky, the most magical spirit of them all, occupies a premium position in our lives. Enjoyed for centuries, across continents and age groups, whisky has captured hearts and minds. Malt whisky is a cult across the world. The passion, nature and nurture you find in whisky is not visible in any other spirit. Not only does it capture the essence of the land it comes from, it also marries more than 1,200 years of history with contemporary practices.
Whisky, more so malt, is enjoyed for its taste. Malts have their own tasting notes and each defines a style and emphasizes the glassware that will provide the best nose. Interestingly, malts even define individual personalities and to an expert, it tells something more about a person. When you have a drink like that, I guess it commands a certain respect and dignity.
While I respect every individual’s own style of enjoying his drink and the fact that each country has its own signature, I also believe each drink needs to be enjoyed the way it expresses itself best. We cool white wine, chill champagne and enjoy a cognac in a snifter.
Americans drink their whiskey with Coke, the Chinese with green tea. But ask any self-respecting individual if they will make a cranberry cocktail with a good aged single malt. Malts are best enjoyed on their own or with a dash of water, to open them up and unleash the romance.
When you add a strong mixer like a sugar-laced juice, citrus fruits and top it with ice, you are not enjoying the taste of the whisky, but a cool alcoholic beverage. Tasty, sure, enjoyable, yes, but whisky, nay. That being the case, a fresh distilled white spirit would prove to be as effective a base.
Why waste a spirit which has seen 12 years or more, has been romancing the wood for seasons, is smoked with peat which could be 7,000 years old? Why not enjoy it in its finest form than use it only for its alcoholic content?
I’m sure that most malt mavens and whisky lovers know how to enjoy their favourite dram. For the rest, I guess they can continue eating their Hyderabadi dum biryani mixed with red Thai curry. What they drink with it, in that case, will really not matter. As they say in Gaelic, Slainte Mhor! Good health!
(The author is the exclusive representative in India of the William Grant’s Rare Whisky Collection and the Whisky Magazine)