Blended Scotch is back on the table, for one. “People have been going on about single malts for the last decade but I think we are coming back to blends as the better art form," says Riyaaz Amlani.
We are at Amlani’s office above Mumbai’s legendary American Express Bakery in Byculla. It’s airy and open-plan. The staff is young; somebody offers me kombucha. It is an anachronistic setting to discuss whisky and tradition, which I am here to do because the 44-year-old has recently been inducted into the Keepers of the Quaich society (pronounced “quake").
With under 3,000 members, the exclusive international society was founded by Scotland’s legacy whisky families in the 1980s. It takes its name from the Scottish Gaelic word for the traditional drinking cup. As CEO and managing director of Impresario Entertainment And Hospitality Pvt. Ltd, Amlani was part of a batch of 44 nominees who were inducted last month at a ceremony at Blair Castle in Perthshire. The other two from India were Abanti Sankaranarayanan, chief strategy and corporate affairs officer of Diageo India, and Aman Dhall, a Delhi-based liquor distributor. India, Amlani tells me, is a top three priority market for Scotch whisky globally. The society launched an India chapter last year.
But even as Amlani tells me about his time at the “Oscars of the whisky world"—the oath-taking, kilts, haggis—he admits that his regular drink on an evening out is “Jack Daniel’s with two cubes of ice". He introduces me to Johnnie Under Pressure, a whisky cocktail at his Mumbai bistro Slink & Bardot, for which Johnnie Walker and soda are put through an in-house carbonator. The resulting drink is a sweet cocktail without any sweetener being added. “Great for Sunday afternoon," he says.
What would the Keepers and the Masters have to say about that? “The way whisky was presented and marketed is itself changing. It’s no longer seen as something that is hallowed and deserves your undivided attention."
“There was this Australian guy who was outraged that Colin Scott, Chivas Regal’s master blender, drinks his whisky with ginger ale!" says Amlani. He has always been a firm believer that you are the master and the drink is the servant, not the other way around. These days, whisky ambassadors regularly debunk the “to splash or not to splash" theories at every opportunity, but ginger ale is news to me. Things really do seem to be loosening up. Even Moët and Chandon is okay with people icing their champagne and adding sliced fruits in it.
Since millennials are increasingly blamed for everything, from falling sales in the auto industry to falling levels of public discourse, I ask him what millennial culture means for whisky consumption. Amlani is well placed to answer this. A major share of his network of 48 restaurants across the country caters to the youth. “With millennials, the key difference is that they practise moderation… they know how to enjoy a good thing and they want to do it responsibly. And that’s the messaging that liquor brands are getting into now."
The Keepers are meant to meet a few times a year in their local chapters to ponder whisky. Amlani has been thinking about whisky-tasting flights at youth-centred spaces like Social, one of his most popular restaurant brands. “There’s the kind of young crowd that’s curious. They are constantly looking at upgrading their tastes. Flights are the best way to do that."
Whisky’s old-man associations are slowly fading. More women are drinking whisky, he points out. And whisky brands globally are on a mission to decelerate the image by encouraging highballs, cocktails and topping up with soda. “Several blends consciously don’t carry the age any more," he says.
Amlani is a “peaty" kind of guy but doesn’t want to be boxed. “I will have a gin and tonic for a weekend brunch. I will have wine with a meal. A party drink for me is JD but if I am sitting and having a conversation with someone, I will crack open the nice stuff.... I don’t belong to a club," he says.
Except that he now does, I remind him.
“But it’s not a political party.... I can deflect every now and then. At Blair Castle, all the boys of whisky were drinking wine in the afternoons. It goes to show there’s no one way," he laughs.
On a more serious note, he believes what has helped the whisky industry is that the stigma around drinking has come down. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, going to a restaurant without a liquor licence was okay. Now people want a drink with their meal," he says. Amlani has been a poster boy for the Indian restaurant industry. It was on his watch as the president of the NRAI (National Restaurant Association of India) that the Supreme Court reversed its judgement on the highway liquor ban, a move that had led to a significant loss of revenue and employment.
Considering he is “around alcohol" all the time, he has rules about his own consumption. Mondays and Tuesdays are soda-with-a-slice-of-lemon days. Wednesdays are JD days. Special occasions call for Glenlivet 25 years sherry cask or the Macallan 35 years sherry cask. He’s also very fond of Glenfiddich (“The 15 and 18 are great whiskys") and while peaty is otherwise his staple, some days he favours the smoky notes of Ardbeg, Caol Ila and Lagavulin. That is a lot of whisky to choose from. However, some moods call for real specifics. This weekend, for instance, will be a A’bunadh kind of weekend. It is “hand-made from start to finish, with the flavour of homemade fruit cake, and is aged in Spanish oak Oloroso sherry butts". We were pretty far from the weekend when we met but Amlani’s eyes lit up as he articulated his A’bunadh fantasy. You can take the snobbery out of a whisky guy but can you take out the love?