As we peer into the Celtic twilight to figure the history of today’s whisky, we realize that it is as cloudy and misty as the Scottish highlands. The modern history of the liquid which goes back 600 years tells us that it all began in Ireland and then travelled to the Isles of Scotland and then the mainland. The word whisky derives from the Irish ‘Uisce beatha’ or Gaelic ‘Uisge Beatha’ both meaning ‘water of life’. This World Whisky Day celebrated every year on the third Saturday of May, here are my five whisky picks you should try if you haven’t already….. Just gives us Indians another reason to drink our favorite dark spirit!
Blender’s Pride - India:
A very popular brand which uses the fashion route for surrogate advertising is a blend of Indian grain spirit and Scotch malt. Considering the molasses and ENA (Extra Neutral Alcohol) whiskies that India is infamous for, this brand does great justice and in fact is good alternative for many blended Scotch whiskies. Do not undermine it considering its measly price of Rs 1150 a bottle, try this whisky blind with your imports and you will know.
Woodford Reserve – USA:
The bottle stands out amongst bourbon whiskies and the liquid doesn’t fail to impress. Aged in barrels made in their own cooperage this elixir shows nuances of prunes and figs with the freshness of orange, it is well rounded but more crisp than luscious.
Wolfburn – Scotland:
This is mainland Scotland’s most northerly distillery and it is built 350m away from the ruins of a 19th century distillery from where it gets It name; making the Wolfburn one of the youngest too. The whisky is aged in ex-Islay cask which gives the dram that smoke and the maritime character is induced by proximity to the sea, a factor often seen in highland malts by the coast.
Paul John Bold – India:
This one is making India proud. This Single Malt from Goa is available in over 20 countries and scores over 94 points in the whisky bible. At 40 ppm peat this smoky whisky is likely to impress those who love their Islay malts. It is a perfect blend for making Penicillin and sours too. It is available in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa, Chandigarh and now Delhi.
Chivas Regal 18 – Scotland:
‘Get me two bottles of Chivas on your way back from your trip abroad’ is a common request I am sure many of us are familiar with. However this is for the 12 year variant, have you ever tried the 18 year old elixir?? A rich liquid reminiscent of orange peels, vanilla, sweet spice and dried stone fruits will surely get you indulging.
Whiskies or any other spirit which has taken that long to age demands our time to be enjoyed and that too very slowly. I say a small shot of aged whisky should go for 30 minutes, sip and bask in the wooded glory for sometime before the next sip. A neat dram of whisky at around 15 degree Celsius is the perfect shot and if you think otherwise then drown it in milk, soda or whatever, you are the paying consumer and you have a choice to have it your way!
‘This Father’s Day the perfect gift for your dad is whisky’ would be one of the many ads that might pop on your social pages. I am sure that one’s whisky loving father is happy anytime you get him a bottle of liquid sunshine. Moreover many even would like the same brand over years! So this Father’s day why don’t you help him open his horizons and get him know more about whisky, a different elixir with a different history, the Bourbon. Perhaps this will stay with him longer than that bottle of whisky …
Bourbon whisky was named after the Bourbon, one of the original counties of Kentucky when the latter was still a part of Virginia. The early settlers in the 1700s, the Scots, Northern Irish, the Germans and the Americans from the east (who were used to rye) quickly understood the positives of producing a spirit based out the native-corn considering corn was in plenty and difficult to transport due to bulk. This corn spirit transported in wooden barrels down the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans aged during the voyage and was appreciated at the final destination and began to be called the ‘Bourbon Whisky’. In the 1780s Reverend Elijah Craig; the father of Bourbon whiskey took a step further to char the barrels from inside which today is responsible for the distinctive nose and color of a Bourbon. Now why did he char it has its own line-up of lore. Bourbon is now recognized or believed to be the only ‘native American spirit’ and can be made anywhere in the United States.
Now what does it take to be a Bourbon!
Minimum 51% corn
The Mash bill as they call it is the proportion of grains the distiller uses to make the whisky. To be called Bourbon the whiskey has to contain at least 51% corn. Different distillers would adjust the mash bill based on the nuances they wish to achieve. For example the Woodford Reserve uses 18% Rye in its blend which lends spicier notes to the finished product and in Bulleit it is 28% which make it spicier. The other grain used is Barley and some Bourbon distilleries are tried their hand at malt whiskies too.
Aged in charred new oak barrels
‘Straight’ is the word you need to look for on the label. When it says straight Bourbon it has to age for a minimum of 2 yrs in charred new American oak barrels and it can just go in for a day for it to be called only Bourbon. Bulleit has no age statement but is typically aged between 6-8 yrs and so is Buffalo trace for the same average period. Some distilleries also experiment with different oak influences like the Maker’s Mark 46 which sees French Oak Staves for that French elegance.
Whilst Bourbon can be made anywhere in the USA, 95% of it comes from Kentucky. The iron free water which is rich in calcium and magnesium is most preferred for distillation and that has kept the industry flourishing over the last 200 years. Jack Daniel’s, you finally hear it! JD is a Tennessee whisky which starts its life as Bourbon and then undergoes a process of Maple Charcoal filtration also called the Lincoln County process which finally renders it to be a Tennessee whiskey. To be a Tennessee it has to be made in Tennessee unlike bourbon. So JD is not a Bourbon!
To be termed Bourbon it has to be bottled at more than 40% alcoholic strength and can go into the barrel at no more than 62.5%. This lower strength of alcohol while going into the barrel is to ensuring slow and steady aging than leeching of flavour with a high alcoholic spirit. The Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is bottled at 54-57% ABV (alcohol by volume)
No Caramel, No Colour!
‘Straight bourbon whiskey’ doesn’t allow the use of any additives, just water. When it says only Bourbon then it does allow a small percentage of additives to enhance the liquid.
Now all of the above being a given for bourbons, distilleries try and differentiate themselves with the shape of stills they use, pot stills in addition to a column, the location of the warehouses, years in aging and of course the water source, these contribute to the final elixir in the bottle. I will leave you with a few images from our recent Kentucky visit and some brands to lay hands on your next visit to the USA.
Pappy Van Winkle
Makers Mark 46
Woodford Double Oaked
(The last two also make fantastic Rye whiskies; I will leave them for some other day)
P.S: Use of Whisky or Whiskey is completely at your discretion. Nobody cares as long as the whiskeee is good!
Radico Khaitan one of the biggest liquor cos in the country may have tasted first blood when they introduced Suntory the Japanese whisky giant to India in 2011 or maybe it had something envisaged already, as the casks rested at the foothills of the Himalayas. Radico Khaitan has finally unveiled ‘Rampur’ a Single malt whisky at the WSWA convention in Las Vegas.
Radico Khaitan was formerly called the Rampur distillery, the distillery was established in 1943 and it takes us back to the time of the raj. A 15 Gun Salute princely state of British India - Rampur is known for its rich heritage and royal traditions. Rampur is one of the homes of Urdu poetry and Hindustani music and is also the home to a very distinct style of architecture, cuisines and interestingly, knife making. Taking forward the rich heritage of Rampur and the 75 years of distillation expertise, the pioneers Radico have carefully hand-crafted the Single Malt- Rampur. “Our aim is to create a valuable customer experience, consistent with the company’s brand assurance. We are adding a new step to this wonderful journey with Rampur Indian Single Malt. Let this gift of the Royal Heritage give you a 15 Gun Salute!” said CMD Lalit Khaitan.
The malt will be available soon in international markets and travel retail with India to follow. Prices awaited!
More power to India and Indian whisky!
Nothing can bring out the essence of the product more than its history and if the history spans over 5 centuries then it gets even more interesting. Rum akin to a few other spirits has seen its ups and downs and can certainly make for a good documentary! Let us look at how it all began for Rum….
Sugarcane moves East to West
The Indian sugarcane industry which fuels many a political heavy weights in the country also has its share of the pie when one speaks of the genesis of Rum. In 350 BC; Indians were consuming a fermented sugarcane beverage and as sugarcane travelled from east to the west the knowledge of cane juice fermentation spread. Fast forward to the 13th century when the French physicist Arnaud had distilled grape for a potent potable spirit, distillation was the new trend. Marco Polo the traveler during his travels during the same period also found a drink in Indonesia made out of Red Rice and Sugarcane juice and wrote it in his travelogues and this led to lot of merchants from Italy importing the drink. It is also said that this drink may have led the Russians to start making their own spirit, Vodka of today! The Spanish and Portuguese in the 14th picked up colonies in the islands close by like the Canary and Madeira and sugar was grown there, sugar was considered a spice and was everyone vied for the control of the industry; beverage was still not on their minds. It is only after Columbus went westwards and landed in the Caribbean that the sugarcane beverage flourished.
Rumble in the Caribbean:
The Portuguese were the first ones to make spirit in Brazil in the 16th century, now called the Cachaca and then called ‘crazy sugarcane juice’ in the local dialect. The Dutch known for their sailing prowess and of course Gin established Caribbean colonies in the 17th century and starting actively making Sugarcane spirit not just out of juice but also molasses the byproduct of the sugar industry. They called it Kyldevel which was later anglicized to Kill Devil by the English who had taken over many Spanish colonies. The Dutch passed on their knowledge of cane distillation to the English too and the latter eventually called the drink Rumbullion, a term commonly used in West England referring to great tumult, what else would one expect as an aftermath of people drinking a 70% spirit!
Royal Navy Rum:
Beer was slowly being replaced by rum as daily ration in the British Navy as Beer couldn’t survive the seas. It all began in 1687 and by 1731 the Rum completely replaced beer, it was a pint of 70 % ABV as opposed to a Gallon of beer. Over the decade Rum had created enough Rumbullion for the admiral to dilute their drinks with water, sugar and lime juice and the men called it the Old Grog after the admiral who used to wear a Grogram coat. You will see variants aplenty of this drink, cocktails of today!
The invention of patent still in 1832 affected most spirit categories and Rum was no exception. Before the patent still, Rums were dark and big and when Cuba adopted patent still for the first time in the 1860’s to make lighter style rum other followed and over 1600 distilleries adopted the method and it spread. Light rums became the delight of the bartenders then a profession which was gathering momentum. Today Cuban and Puerto Rican rums are known for their lighter style rums.
The rise of cocktails and the Tiki Culture:
The late 1800’s saw the rise of rum and rum cocktails, Daiquiri, Cuba Libre, Dark n Stormy were popular. The American prohibition helped the Rum Cause even more when the wealthy of America came down south for rum and bootlegger like the famous McCoy took the rum northwards to thirsty Americans. 1931 saw the listing of Mojito at the Sloppy Joe’s bar in Cuba. The repeal of prohibition in 1933 saw the rise of grain spirits saw the decline of Rum only to go up again with the advent of the Tiki culture. Don Beach who opened up a Tiki themed bar in Hollywood served heady rum cocktail using myriad ingredients and with a lot of fresh juices. The Zombie was one of his most popular. The Trader Vic who drew inspiration from Don Beach was known for the Mai Tai a cocktail which depleted rum stocks in Jamaica and pushed up Jamaican Rum prices. The mid-late 1900’s saw a dip in the popularity of Rum and the rise of other grain spirits, majorly Vodka.
Rum over the last two decades is gaining popularity with the advent of internet, the travelling consumer, the travelling bartender and Rum expos the most popular being the UK Rum fest. People now have gone back to the Pre-grog days of sipping rums neat as they have plentiful options of beautifully aged rums from across the world, primarily the Caribbean!
Every Rum making nation have their own set of regulations or maybe not. The WIRSPA ( West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association Inc.) comprising 15 Caribbean country associations have set up common production standards and certify their rum as 'Authentic Caribbean Rum' if it follows the following guidelines.
-Rum must be fermented and distilled in one or more of these countries from product of sugar cane origin
-Additives are not permitted
-Where a statement of maturity and/or age is given:
o It shall be that of the youngest distilled spirit in the product
o The rum shall have been matured in wooden vats or barrels for not less than one year
Some other Rum labelling terms are as below:
Rhum Agricole: Rum made from Sugarcane juice
Rhum Industriel: Rum made from Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production. Doesn’t indicate inferior quality but a lighter taste profile
Light Rums: They are clear, mostly unaged light bodied rums perfect for cocktails. Puerto Rica, Cuba, Trinidad etc are known for this style of Rums. E.G: Havana Club, Angostura
Golden or Amber Rums: These age in oak barrels for several years to create a medium bodied spirit rich in Oak influences .Barbados, Jamaica, Venezuela etc make this style of rums
Dark Rums: They are heavy, luscious and heavy on oak aged aromas. Most of them could be drunk neat. Guyana, Jamaica, the French islands of Martinique and Haiti etc are known for its full bodied styles. One style you must try are Demerara Rums from Guyana, they are spicy and sweet with a hint of smoke. For E.G: El Dorado 12
Cachaca: Brazilian spirit made out of cane juice and unaged. Best known for its use in Caipirinhas!
Aged Statement: Just like whiskies some Rum cos will have an age on the label. Depending on the region that number would indicate the oldest or the youngest Rum in the blend. Last words, the numbers on a Rum bottle can be misleading unless of course you know of the country regulations.
Rum Cocktails: Mojito, Daiquiri, Pinacolada, Zombie, MaiTai, Planter’s Punch and Hot Buttered Rum…
This is a good start to rums, whilst one could certainly be an Old Monk fan forever!
Vodka is a colourless, flavourless, odourless spirit; it is what most people would say about Vodka, they are wrong! Like most other wines and spirits, Vodka also has a history and a story to tell, let’s take you through it before we give you brief pointer on identifying vodkas based on ingredients….
16th- 19th century:
Vodka comes from the term Woda or Voda means little water and both Russia and Poland claim it to be their invention. This ‘little water’ initially was used for medicinal purposes and was macerated with various herbs and sweetened but only in the 16th century that it began to be consumed for pleasure. In the same period Russia, Sweden, Poland and Finland saw a huge rise in Vodka distilleries and it was made from all things grain. The popularity continued to grow and it grew so much that Catherin the great from Russia and King Gustaf of Sweden actually made it a monopoly by making the whole industry state owned, this was in the 18th century. Today potato vodka is a luxury however distillation from potatoes began in Sweden in1746 when failed harvests leading to a grain shortage and Poland eventually made potato vodkas their specialty.
Vodka and War:
Vodka had got very popular however it was restricted to Eastern Europe and Scandinavian countries often called the vodka belt. Smirnoff which started in 1818, Absolut in 1877 gave the product a great push to an extent that there were calls of prohibition in early 1900s and Sweden finally saw rationing of Vodka and most other vodka belt countries saw a 10-20 year ban on selling and consumption of Alcohol. The market of vodka went down and adding to it was the US prohibition, the US however didn’t have much access to Vodka anyways. The 1930 cocktail book by Harry Craddock listed more than 100 cocktail recipes but only 2 of them had vodka in it and if you were to look at bar menus now, it is a sea change!
Smirnoff who had fled to the USA during the Russian revolution started Smirnoff in the US in 1934 and the same year saw the first Vodka cocktail competition in the country. The Dry Martini and the Moscow Mule were doing their bit for Vodka. Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale the James Bond series pushed the category even further and Vodka became aspirational after Bond’s Vesper Martini. Soon after US and the UK saw an influx of brands from the east and Vodka had officially arrived.
Rise of Cocktails:
Cocktails had started to get popular in the 80’s and first flavoured vodka was launched in the market. Absolut Peppar was the one and was introduced as a base spirit for Bloody Marys which were very popular then. The end of the communism in the east saw privatization of brands and emerged the trend of luxury vodkas in all avatars, glacial water, and diamond filtered, n times filtered etc etc and after a while the differentiation diminished. The category continues to grow, you can now check a bar menu and see the number of cocktails with vodka in it! As the distilling cos say “Vodka pays the bills’.
Lastly how to identify Vodka based on ingredients:
Potato: Mashed potato nose with a creamy and full palate E.g. Chase, Chopin
Barley: Malty on the nose with a hint of sweet spice, begins on a sweet note and with a dry finish E.g. Finlandia, Sipsmith
Rye: Very prominent Rye bread nose with a very spicy finish on the palate E.G. Belvedere, Wyborowa, Chopin Rye
Grape: Lime and lemon scented, you can’t miss this one E.g. Ciroc
Wheat: Some show citrus and some anise and some toasted wheat kernel like aromas… E.g.Absolut Elyx, 42 Below, Ketel One
There are more to ingredients like quinoa, spelt, rice etc coming out from the new trend of micro distilleries. After all this, please remember that if you douse your vodka with juices and syrups and still are able to figure your vodka then you must be drunk!
Global drinks player International Beverage Holdings Limited (IBHL), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Thai Beverage Public Limited Company ( Chang beer fame), has entered the Indian market with three of its finest single malt scotch whiskies; Old Pulteney, Balblair and Speyburn and a super-premium Scottish gin; Caorunn for Mumbai and Delhi. We at The Happy High were introduced to the same at a tasting Edinburgh based Karen Walker the Marketing Director of the company.
Balblair one of the oldest registered distilleries in Scotland changed multiple hands before coming to Inter Bev group in 1996. Balblair until 2006 was non-vintage single malt with an age statement until a positioning revamp which saw the whisky being released with a vintage year akin to wines. They began with 1979, 1989, 1997 and now the 2003 which we tasted. The vintage year represents the year of distillation and the whisky going into casks. Karen said, ‘ We have stocks of ever year laid down in the barrels since the time our company took over from 1996 till now, however when would the whisky’s be released is completely up to the Master Blender . What we tasted today is a 2003 first release; the second release may happen in the next year or the next decade, only time has the answer’. The Balblair ’03 aged in second fill Bourbon barrels has light golden colour however it is bursting with toffee, orange and sweet spice. It shows good body and has a savoury finish.
The Speyburn 10 years label’s speaks of it as a Highland whisky in bold however it is a Speyside one and this anomaly in nomenclature goes back to the time when Glenlivet had reserved the term Speyside for their malts only. The rules have changed now and Speyburn could be seen with a Speyside label soon! This dram was much lighter in body with vanilla and fresh fruits and had a good touch of smoke to it, surprising for unpeated malt.
The last for the day was their flagship Old Pulteney one the most northerly distilleries in the mainland and situated on the eastern coast. This one they call it the maritime malt and it certainly displays the nuances of the salty air on the nose and the palate. It is quite restrained overall is extremely smooth and balanced. The bottle is designed like the classic onion shaped copper pot stills and their 21 year old was adjudged the best whisky of the world in the 2012 edition of the Whisky Bible.
All three are available in Mumbai and are in the Rs 5400-6700 range
An Australian model gives up a thriving modeling career to pursue a career in cooking inspired by her partner of Indian origin and almost hits the maximum in the celebrated Masterchef Australia – Season Six, the girl in question; Sarah Todd the 27 year old was in Mumbai on a recent trip. At hotel Grand Hyatt at a soiree, she not only wooed the audience with her style of food but also paired some cocktails to go along.
Sarah a fan of Indian food used spices like ajwain and ingredients like Besan or Gram flour in here first dish, Zucchini and pea pakoras served with corn relish, this was paired with the Martini Cooler a vodka cocktail with mango, orange, and rosemary. The second was the Salmon Ceviche with mint chutney paired with a Pink lady, a gin cocktail with pomegranate and Apple infused brandy and lastly was the audience’s favourite for the night, slow roasted lamb shoulder with beetroot relish on crisp bread paired with the Bellany Scotch sour, with ginger, honey and orange. I tasted the first dish and was tippling otherwise..Not complaining!
Coming to how was Sarah behind the bar? She was superb, only in posing for the shutterbugs and gallantly passed on the cocktail samples to people, no pun intended here. She happily admitted that she was better cooking in the kitchen than acquiring a completely new skill of bartending, and I must admit she was swift, composed and methodical in her cooking demos earlier in the evening.
What’s next for Sarah? I don’t know but of what I feel and see around, she will sure find a lot of patronage for her food if she were to open a restaurant here in the country, all due credits to her and a fair chunk to MasterChef Australia for a fact that even a five year old saw a picture of Sarah and me and shouted out aloud ‘Master Chef Australia’. The Chef revolution is indeed awakening in the land of spices!
The ‘October heat’ is giving Mumbaikars a simmering preview of what is in store, with humidity levels hovering between 75-94% on a hot sunny day; the scene was perfectly set for me to go out and try some cocktails. The destination for my cocktail fix was the 022 restaurant at Hotel Trident in Bandra Kurla complex and ‘presse’cocktails were on my mind.
Cobbler, Collins, High-Ball, Flip, Nogs, Sours etc are styles of cocktails and so is Presse, ‘a drink made from freshly squeezed fruit juice, sugar and ice’ says the dictionary, in fact there are some RTD (Ready to drink) sparkling presses available in the Indian market, virgin though. The special menu was instantly presented to me as I made myself comfortable on a high chair at the island bar. Abundant daylight coming in through the glass façade made the ambience even more cheerful and apt for a cocktail afternoon. L’Original Presse , made with Grey Goose vodka , cucumber, and lime was a perfect aperitif to precede a liquid main. The best part about this was the intensity of flavour and the bracing acidity. A premium product like this one at Rs 850 ++, commands an experience apart from the quality of ingredients used and the bartenders had taken the coffee-route for this one and presented the drink in a French Press. The press helped in to soak in the flavors for those few extra minutes while allowing the server to elegantly strain the cocktail in front of me, in fact I strained one myself; it could perhaps give some people the feeling of having made the drink all by themselves…….this is the enhanced experience.
Paradise Presse; a basil, rosemary and berry mix seemed diluted ( Crushed ice the cause) and lacked balance in the first version, the bartender happily spruced it up and it was a perfectly sweetened fruit bomb( this time with ice cubes) bursting with raspberry flavour with subtle hints of the fresh herbs. The last one, Korean Presse in a hurricane glass was a splendid mix of green tea and Bombay Sapphire with minimal sweetening; I would call it a food-cocktail, one which could be sipped throughout the meal. There were more with other flavours like Chamomile, Pear, lemon grass etc, but sadly it was a working afternoon rather responsible drinking is the call of the day.
Quality ingredients play the most important role in how the end product is, however it takes two to tango; ingredients which cooperate with one another to make a great product and these cocktails with less than 3 or 4 ingredients show the way ahead. Surely go try them if you are that side… they are concocting till the 10th of October…