It’s not easy to make a cheery old Irishman wince.
But it has happened, in a building with a pagoda-shaped roof on the banks of the St Columb’s Rill, which runs through the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, the oldest licensed one in the world. The facial contortion took place right after I had clanked a cube of ice into the amber of the Bushmills Distillery Reserve, a 12-year-old single malt, available only at the distillery. “That is one thing we recommend you don’t do to your whiskey,” the otherwise genial guide mournfully told me.
It was not much later that I wondered what his reaction would be if he realized that other whisky brands were committing bigger “crimes” than my frozen piece of water —trying to gather young followers for their sacred “water of life” by promoting whisky cocktails.
Mixologists are realizing that a scotch blended with the correct ingredients can make a darned good cocktail, and as single malts become more of a status symbol than a drink, consumers are looking at whisky in a more friendly way.
Manufacturers are wooing bars and restaurants to put signature cocktails on the menu using the whiskies they have aged and nurtured for years.
“We make special cocktails for brands who ask us to. Sometimes they come with recipes and if we like them, we put them on the menu,” says Greg D’Souza, corporate bar manager for deGustibus Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, which owns the Indigo restaurant in Mumbai. (Indigo tied up with Black and White scotch a few years ago for a line of cocktails. After the tie-up ended, D’Souza says they left the cocktails on the menu because, “guests enjoy them and they are a nice change to classics such as the Manhattan.”)
Traditionally, cocktail stirrers just didn’t get to take a dip in whisky. A Manhattan (rye whisky, sweet vermouth, bitters) or Whisky Sour (Bourbon, lemon juice, sugar, a dash of egg white) was as far as bartenders would go. That is if customers asked for a whisky cocktail in the first place; they still don’t, at establishments frequented by the old guard.
MIXED EQUATIONS (PDF)
The Bayview Bar at The Oberoi, Mumbai, is known for its collection of malts and whiskies. “But, in my two years here, I have served whisky cocktails only five times—four Whisky Sours to a regular guest, and a Manhattan, which was ordered by an American,” says Rahul Korgaokar, The Bayview Bar manager.
But purists are not the audience cocktail sellers are talking to. “Whisky is a no-nonsense drink, and whisky bibbers are no-nonsense drinkers. Many see cocktails as an unnecessary intrusion of nonsense. Why mess up a perfectly good malt by mixing it with something?” says Eric Felten, author of How’s Your Drink, a book on the culture, lore and history of cocktails, with a weekly column with the same name in The Wall Street Journal. “The point isn’t that whisky drinkers should start making cocktails with their spirit of choice, but rather that cocktail aficionados might well enjoy trying some drinks made with whisky, for a change.”
While whisky is nowhere close to overthrowing vodka in the cocktail arena, it’s surely moving ahead. Ravi Krishnan, bartender at WINK, at Taj President, Mumbai—one of south Mumbai’s hottest nightspots, known also for its cocktails —says he sells 40 whisky cocktails, out of a total of 200 cocktails on a busy night. “It changed about a year-and-a-half ago. As whisky is spoken about more, young people like to try it in cocktails,” he says.
That statement deserves a bit of looking into. With an experiment in mind, we decide to spend an evening plying people with whisky cocktails. Location: Magic, a new bar/lounge in south Mumbai. Conductor: Shatbhi Basu, beverage consultant and Magic’s bar boss. Hapless victims: a restaurateur, a sales manager of a furniture company and the writer of this piece.
Basu spent a while chatting with our little focus group on what kinds of cocktails and drinks they liked. A bit of a surprise—everyone liked whisky, but none wanted to really experiment with cocktails. Basu picked up a bottle of Haig, started shaking it up, and was fiddling around with suspicious ingredients such as Kit Kat chocolate and ginger. Soon, the drinks started lining up on the bar.
Sudeip Nair, 27, (owner of PMatka, a pub in Hyderabad), and Steve Pulimoottil, 25, (an area manager for a furniture company), said people from Kerala like their whisky with water and mentioned that they would be unhappy if someone spoilt a good whisky. Before we could worry about Basu, they were handed Red Hot Rocks (scotch, cranberry juice, hint of lime) and a Highland Cooler (apple juice, whisky, a hint of fresh mint and a splash of lime). Nair said he loved the cranberry and was surprised that he liked the drink, because he doesn’t like sour tastes. Pulimoottil said he would drink the Cooler again because “it feels good in this weather”. We also tried a Black Scotsman (scotch, Kahlua and a Kit Kat garnish). However diabetes-inducing it may sound, the Scotsman was this writer’s favourite—the coffee flavours complemented the whisky. The pink icy fuzz of the Strawberry Sting (ice blended with scotch, strawberry crush, lime and fresh mint) was refreshing and an interesting change in texture. After a Twisted Whisky Sour (scotch, lime juice, sugar syrup, a dash of orange juice and Campari) and a Fred and Ginger (scotch, lime juice and ginger ale), the decision was that none of us would pass up a whisky cocktail.
We’re mirroring a trend, which Felten sees in savvy drinkers internationally, to move away from the blandness of vodka and instead embrace cocktails made with spirits that have real flavour. “There are plenty of spirits with flavour —gin, brandy, tequila, good rum and, of course, whisky,” he says.
Traditional whisky cocktails such as the Old-Fashioned, Mint Julep and Manhattan, made with Bourbon or Canadian whiskies, have always been popular. Today, scotch, blends and even single malts are being served—with mixers—in martini glasses.
Anant Iyer, business head, luxury brands and head of institutional sales and trade marketing, United Spirits Ltd, (the flagship company of the UB Group which clearly believes in mixing up its whiskies), explains why whisky started finding itself in a cocktail shaker: “Whisky manufacturers in the late 1980s and early 1990s started losing ground to white spirits. In the late 1990s, the realization sunk in that they had lost a whole generation of drinkers to vodka. Bartenders were by then doing magic with vodka and cocktails had become fashionable. Plus, no one wanted to be associated with their father’s drink.”
A Jura Nutcracker is definitely not something your father drank. United Spirits Ltd inherited the Isle of Jura single malt when it acquired the Whyte and Mackay family in 2007. This waist-high full toss of a cocktail, with chocolate liqueur and Bailey’s Irish Cream, is served at Whyte and Mackay functions. Iyer claims it’s wonderful (“even the chairman loved it”). But even more of a surprise than Vijay Mallya sipping a Nutcracker is the nod it has been given by Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte and Mackay and a highly respected figure in the whisky industry.
Paterson likens a cocktail to a blend of whisky itself. “It’s like extending the blend to infuse other elements and flavours and making it more appealing.” Paterson says cocktails are a great stepping stone to stimulate interest in the spirit; they open up scotch, which he considers one of the world’s most important drinks, to a younger market.
“For a long time, scotch was dismissed as too distinctive a taste, one that didn’t mix well with other traditional cocktail ingredients. But now, distinctive flavours are in vogue and that makes scotch a good choice as the base for a cocktail,” says Felten.
Whether it’s scotch, a blend or a malt, doesn’t seem to matter to the mixologists at United Spirits, manufacturer of whiskies such as McDowell’s and Royal Challenge, among others. The company employs two full-time bartenders as well as a mixologist and a flair bartender as consultants.
At the McDowell Indian Derby in February, United Spirits borrowed an old tradition from the Kentucky Derby and served Mint Juleps. It also created cocktails with Black Dog, that were named after famous racehorses, such as Black Eclipse and Sugar Swirl. Earlier this year, bermuda-wearing ad professionals at Goafest 2008, the annual advertising festival, got to sample a line of Signature cocktails named after ad agencies (Saatchi’s Peg, Ogilvy’s 6 and Burnett’s Booze). There was also a line of Royal Challenge cocktails in honour of Mallya’s cricket team, Royal Challengers Bangalore, which fans could try after a game at the VIP enclosure in the stadiums, and at after-parties
It’s difficult to believe that India, the world’s largest consumer of whisky, needs to be cajoled or enticed with cocktails. We consume 100 million cases of whisky annually (including Indian whiskies) according to Euromonitor International. By comparison, the US consumes 45 million cases. “While whisky does not trail behind white spirits, it needs to reinvent positioning and work hard to appeal to new consumers,” says Bikram Basu, vice-president, marketing, Pernod Ricard India, the company that owns Chivas Regal.
Chivas has made efforts to popularize cocktails as well. Chivas Cascade, a concoction of scotch with mandarin syrup, lime and peach juices and tonic water was specially created for the annual Chivas Snow Golf Championships, which was held in St Moritz earlier this year. Closer to home, the Chivas Lounge at both the Wills India Fashion Week and Lakme Fashion Week tries to “induct” young adults and women into the world of whisky, with drinks with names such as Chivas Royale and Chivas Café Cola.
But, women have been drinking whisky cocktails of sorts for decades. And—don’t choke on your Talisker—in Scotland, no less. Shatbhi Basu recalls a conversation with a brand ambassador for Scotch whisky, who told her that scotch with lemonade has always been popular with women in Scotland; his wife and grandmother drank it too.
Basu, who has been asked to concoct cocktails by brands such as Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark and Jim Beam, points out that the Rusty Nail (scotch and Drambuie) originated in Scotland.
That line of reasoning won’t work with a purist. Like most people in the hotel industry, Russell Paine, corporate director, food and beverage, The Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts, believes that when it comes to food and beverage, there is no right and wrong. But get personal, and the single malt lover says, “I would not call myself a traditionalist, but I am personally not a fan of whisky cocktails at all.”
Paine prefers his single malt with a few rocks, “preferably a smaller size and made from mineral water.”
Socialite Poonam Bhagat has sampled Whisky Sours and Manhattans, but prefers to drink a good whisky either on the rocks or with a splash of soda. “I don’t subscribe to whisky being used as an ingredient in a cocktail when you have rums and vodkas doing a perfectly good job,” she says.
Though Iyer says the Jura Nutcracker is wonderful if you’re into that kind of thing, scotch and Coke, in his opinion, is heresy. “I mean, it’s a sin. A guy in Scotland has ensured he’s given you a great 12-year-old. You might as well buy Bagpiper if you’re going to mix it with Coke. Why Black Dog 12?”
Which is a valid point—a rookie bartender could maul a scotch beyond recognition by adding overpowering sweet flavours to mask the taste of the whisky. “But if you understand what you’re playing with, there’s nothing wrong,” says Basu. Mixing a young single malt with Drambuie—as done in a Rusty Nail —works well, she says, because the liqueur is made with aged malt whisky.
Paterson’s advice is similar: “Recognize certain ingredients in the whisky, be it orange, pineapple or crushed almonds, and infuse a similar or same ingredient to bring the flavour to the forefront,” he says.
However, WINK’s Krishnan and his colleague Raj Pathan concocted a signature cocktail with an ingredient that is definitely not mirrored in any whisky—curry leaves. They say the Maharashtra Martini—with Chivas, coffee beans and Kahlua (see “Mixed Equations” box for recipe)—is a best-seller. The duo claims foreign guests who regularly stay at the hotel keep ordering it on every visit and it’s popular with the young crowd as well.
We’ve tried it, and it’s definitely a kick like never before. If you decide to drop the Rs900 plus tax on this one, just don’t tell your dad .
Old-Fashioned: Muddle three dashes of bitters, a sugar cube and a teaspoon of water in an Old-Fashioned glass. Fill it with ice and add 50ml Bourbon.
Mint Julep: Muddle a handful of mint leaves. Fill an Old-Fashioned glass with crushed ice, add 45ml Bourbon, 15ml sugar syrup, top with ice and garnish with a mint sprig.
Rusty Nail: Fill an Old-Fashioned glass with ice, pour in 30ml scotch and 30ml Drambuie and stir. Add more ice and garnish with orange peel.
Whisky Sour: Add 45ml whisky (preferably Bourbon, 15ml sugar syrup, 20ml lime juice and half an egg white to a cocktail shaker that’s ¾ full of ice, and shake. Pour in a tall glass and garnish with a slice of lime.