Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stiff two finger : two bits about Whisky

In this article, I have ventured into a somewhat “dangerous” subject – the age old, ever popular drink called whisky. “Dangerous” not because of what it does to the person who consumes it (though one can argue that drinking it in copious quantities and then attempting to manuevre a vehicle has often resulted in loss of limb or life or both), but because it is an incredibly well researched and documented subject. Any search on the internet is a testimony to this and further, there are books, research papers, exclusive clubs (“Single Malt” club immediately comes to your mind) and several other sources and forums where this is discussed. One can argue that it is almost impossible to come up with something new on this, unless you do some research on some obscure whisky manufactured in some un-pronouncable part of the globe and probably consumed on extremely rare occasions!! Nevertheless, I felt it worthwhile to organise my thoughts and two bits of knowledge on this subject in this article.

The general problem with most of the articles written on whisky is that they are maddeningly specialised. The author assumes that the reader is extremely well versed into the subject and therefore is well conversant with the jargons and finer nuances of the process. It banks too much on its exclusivity and therefore has a tendency – either by design or otherwise, to intimidate the average run-of-the-mill reader. This article is therefore for the commoners like me, the rank and file whose have progressed in life and tend to enjoy a peg or two after sundown. May be, by virtue of reading this article, these lesser mortal souls will not be at the receiving end of the scornfully upturned nose of a connoisseur for not knowing the difference between a bourbon and a scotch.

Let us start by getting the basics right. What is a whisky?

Even such simple question seem to have many complicated answers and variants (how else will the so called connoisseurs survive!), but the most popularly accepted definition is that it is a drink made from grains. What type of grain will decide what type of whisky it is. The most commonly used grain is barley – which when soaked for 2-3 days – germinates into “Malt” – and hence the name malt whisky. The other most commonly used grain is corn – which is the source of most of the American whiskies including Bourbon.

This definition, however, questions the basic existence of the common Indian whiskies – the Bagpipers, Aristocrats and Director’s Specials which were our main stay during college days and even in the initial years of employment. These whiskies are all made from molasses – which is a byproduct of sugar cane and therefore not a grain. Internationally these whiskies are not accepted as “whisky” but are classified as Rum. Major dispute is going on on this subject – predominantly because Mr. Vijay Mallya of UB fame is gunning for getting the Indian whisky accepted abroad. Till this is done, there is a unique contradictory category of whiskey called Indian Made Foreign Liquor or IMFL which has come up. Typically these are the slightly higher class of Indian Whiskies which are often known colloquially as the “Indian Skotch” but are technically IMFL. These whiskies have about 10-12% actual whiskey and the balance supplemented by the molasses whiskey. The popular brands in this category are Signature (the which comes in a delightful case in which my aunt used to keep biscuits), Blender’s pride, Peter Scot (an Indian Whisky manufactured by a company called Koday India – not a scotch by a long shot), Antiquity (lousy stuff but somehow immensely popular in the 90’s) and later on Royal Challenge (“RC” to the hardcore drinkers).

Even the spelling of whisky has a certain amount of mystique around it – is it whisky or whiskey? This also, like everything related to whisky has several answers, but most popular definition is as follows: “Whiskey” means whisky made in US or Ireland; Whisky made in the rest of the world is spelt as ‘Whisky”. It was probably discovered in Scotland (though the Irish also tend to stake their claim on this).

Now we come to the ‘scotch’ – which, according to many, is the only stuff which should be called whisky. It is a whisky made in Scotland and Scotland only. It can be made from Malt (Malt Whisky) or grain (Grain Whisky). In Scotland, Grain whisky is almost always used to prepare a Blended whisky – i.e a mix of Malt and Grain whisky. Malt whisky can further be classified as Single Malt (made from malt of one distillery only) or a Vatted Malt / Blended Malt (mix of several Single Malts). The other type of Scotch is the Blended whisky – the popular brands in this category being Johnnie Walker, Whyte and Mackay, Cutty Sark, J&B, The Famous Grouse and Chivas Regal.

Johnie Walker, the whisky which has a huge following in India has several brands of its own. It starts from the basic Red Label, a standard blended whisky without any declared age; Black Label (my favourite) – a premium blended scotch atleast 12 years old; and Blue label – the supreme whiskey from the Johnie Walker stable which comes in silk-lined box with each bottle serial numbered and having a certificate of authenticity. Johnie Walker also has two vatted malts – the Green Label and the Gold Label – both being blends of around 15 single malts and having an age of 15 to 18 years.

Another extremely popular whisky and probably the largest selling blended whisky in Europe is Chivas Regal. Extremely smooth with a soft mellowed taste, this king of scotch has a huge fan following in India. Categorised into 12 years (premium), 18 years (extra premium) and 25 years (superlative and mind boggling; costs around 300$), this whisky never fails to surprise and overwhelm me.

Let me now venture into another esoteric area of scotch – the years of maturity. Scotch has to be matured in wooden casks. The most popular casks are reused casks of Sherry or Bourbon which are made from white oak. The alchohol has to be matured in these casks for atleast 3 years to qualify as a “Scotch” (though any self-respecting scotch would probably be matured for 12 years). In the process of maturation, some part of the whisky evaporates – a portion which is known as the “Angel’s share”. And no, the whisky does not mature any more once it is bottled!!

Let me now cross the Atlantic and talk about the American Whiskies.

The top of the line is a whiskey called Bourbon. This is a grain whiskey with greater than 51% corn into it (though most of them actually have about 70% corn and the rest as rye and malted barley) and has to be manufactured in the Bourbon county, Kentucky. It also has to be matured in new white oak barrels (reuse not allowed; hence the cask is reused to make scotch!) for atleast 2 years, preferrably between 4 to 8 years.

While US has several popular brands of Bourbon (Jim Bean et al), the most popular whiskey brand of US continues to be Jack Daniel’s Black – a drink immortalised by the super cool dude Frank Sinatra. A stiff two fingers of JD on the rocks (or with water) to be drunk in a “rocks” glass while holding it right handed (a must – it’s supposed to be a gentleman’s drink) – for years this was the symbol of ultimate machishma and the symbol of the rat pack. It is actually a drink made in Tennessee with corn and rye and filtered through charcoal which gives it a very distinctive wooden flavour. The whisky comes in a rather distinctive square bottle instead of round – which is also part of its attraction.

I think I should call it a day now – else I might fall into the same trap as those “specialists” and make the article too difficult for human consumption. Instead let me take a stiff two finger Black Dog scotch, a good book and ease myself on the reclining armchair. Cheers!!


  1. Smooth reading. A hint of chocolate, honey and woodfire but nice and never overwhelming. A perfect dance on the tongue before it glides down... Bravo! The angels are finally celebrating their share.

  2. dis one makes for a good reading...cheers!! as Juni would say.

  3. hallelujah brother thou hast seen the light ... and smoky fine-ness of a good single malt. blessed are the rich in 'spirit' for they have most certainly imbibed the same!!!!

  4. Incredible! I bet if I were to finish off the whiskey-souvenir, that you gave, right now (after reading this blog), my head wouldn't be left spinning.
    Nice piece of information, indeed!

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