Hail, all ye single malt drinkers of India! Here is a bit of news that has the entire whisky world—or a few choice participants anyway—in all of a tizzy. Last month, Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries (nice name) launched their single malt whiskies in India. The brand has sold two whiskies—a single malt and a fusion or blended single malt—in the UK and Europe for several years, but is retailing in India for the first time. The controversy is this: Amrut’s Fusion Single Malt is rated as the No. 3 whisky in the world by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2010.
The rating caused the single malt aficionados of my acquaintance (all Indian men, I might add) to regurgitate the malt, diss the “Bible” and question Murray’s claims. If the guy rates an American rye whisky as No. 1 in the world and an Ardbeg as No. 2, then how objective can he be, was a growing consensus, echoed online. For the record, Amrut’s Fusion Single Malt retails for Rs2,000 and its Single Malt for Rs1,600. I have tasted neither. Even if I did, I am not a whisky expert. What interests me is this: A disproportionate number of Indian men I know are single malt guys. Not only that, they are single malt snobs, denigrating Indian brands for Scottish ones without even tasting the Amrut.
Drinkers, in general, are a passionate, loquacious lot but the single malt guys make it a lifestyle thing. At parties, they make tortuous connections to stay on topic, as in, “Yeah, Deve Gowda really messed up the urban infrastructure around Bangalore. Oh, by the way, have you tried the single malts in Dublin?” They go into Bacchanalian detail about Scotland’s 109 distilleries, and how Irish single malts differ from Japanese and Scottish. Single malt, more than, say, wine or beer, seems to epitomize a particular lifestyle that involves golf, farmhouse, barbecues, foreign vacations, trophy wife and liquor, all occupying the same status in the drinker’s mind. Having never been into single malt, I have to ask: What’s all the fuss about? It’s just malted barley.
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The first time I tasted a single malt, I almost choked. We were a group of ebullient teenagers out on town with a friend’s elder brother—an impossibly worldly man who “read” economics, quoted Chaucer, smoked cigars and downed single malts. Sanjeev was treating us to dinner at the Zodiac Grill at the Taj in Mumbai. I was dazzled and desperate to get his attention. Naturally, I ordered what he was having: a single malt.
You want soda with that, Sanjeev asked.
Something about the tone of his voice told me that soda with single malt was a no-no, so I shook my head and was rewarded with an approving glance.
The golden liquid came. Such a small quantity in a sparkly glass. Intending to impress, I took a giant sip, and regretted it instantly. My mouth was on fire. I wanted to spit it out but couldn’t. Everyone was staring at me as my face contorted. The veins on my forehead stood out. Sanjeev’s girlfriend had her hand over her mouth and was shaking. I swallowed the humiliating mouthful and promptly broke into a coughing fit. Allergies, I said, but no one bought it. Hives, I said. I always get them at the Taj.
Raise a toast: Amrut is made from select barley that is grown in Punjab. Hemant Mishra/Mint
Since that sorry display, I have never been able to look at that drink without mortification. But I have a feeling that once I get rid of my emotional baggage, I’ll like single malts because they are aromatic and complex. Plus at this moment, drinking an Amrut could be construed as a patriotic display to all those foreign whisky snobs out there.
Single malt seems to be the signature drink of India, and I wonder what it says about us. Is it a habit, acquired through history? Your father drank a peg each night and you do too? Do you love single malt because it reminds you of an ultra-cool friend or smooth-talking boss that you want to emulate—your own version of Sanjeev?
There was an amusing email going around some time ago about what our drinks say about us. Beer drinkers were easygoing; champagne lovers were bubbly high-spenders; wine drinkers were artsy and cultured; people who drank cocktails, particularly women, were high-maintenance. The single malt guys? They were supposed to be intense and mean business.
Our relationship with what we drink matures with us, and this, I think, is why so many of you readers like single malts. In college, all you care about is getting sloshed, whether on Mad Dog 20/20 or vodka shots. As you grow older, drinking matures into a drink. You stop reaching for a glass to take you to oblivion. You pause and savour your single malt while reading, oh I don’t know, Barron’s, Corporate Finance or Retail Marketing Report. You become, in other words, middle-aged. You value the flavour more than the buzz. You start using phrases such as “social drinking” as euphemisms for a hangover. You morph from a college student who can down a few Mad Dogs to a person with heft and a hearty wallet. A single malt connoisseur. As for me, I still enjoy the infantile buzz, so I guess, I have a little way to go.
Shoba Narayan doesn’t drink much malt but she has downed a fair bit of that legendary Indian malt drink Bournvita. Write to her at email@example.com