HISTORY IN A GLASS – AND IT’S NOT SCOTCH!

Forty Creek Barrel Select

 

Give an Irishman lager for a month and he’s a dead man. An Irishman is lined with copper and the beer corrodes it. But whiskey polishes the copper and is the saving of him – Mark Twain.

One has to acknowledge that the Scots were responsible for ensuring that whisky became man’s best friend. The British, took to it when they were denied their then favourite tipple – French brandy & Cognac – thanks to the phylloxera virus that plagued French vineyards in 1860s. And as they continued on their journey to conquer the world, they left behind the legacy of this wonderful amber potation.

While a fair part of the world was sipping scotch, America & Canada were being gradually inhabited by immigrants, nay gold diggers, desperados, runaways, believers in the new world… Many of these came from distilling nations – Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Holland, Norway, Sweden. Having established themselves, planted their grains, their surplus was soon put to good use. Making whiskey. You notice it’s spelt with an extra ‘e’. I can think of two reasons why – their penchant for changing everything British, the Irish influence.

The Irish, thought responsible for beginning the distilling of ‘uisge beatha’, were in constant turmoil.  History played a serious number on them. And, I must admit, I have learned far more history studying alcohol than in a classroom. Crippling taxation by the British, the great famine, the thirst for independence from Britain resulting in trade embargos, prohibition in the US and the ban on exporting alcohol during the wars all contributed to the decline of the Irish whiskey industry. I believe it’s called – the luck of the Irish!

Consolidation of the few active distilleries to form  allowed them to divide their limited resources smartly but leanly. They built themselves a space age distillery, one of the most modern in the world. But didn’t have the funds to send out their entire portfolio. So the world only saw Jameson with Bushmills and Black Bush showing face every once in a while. The vicious cycle continued to dog them. Not many Irish brands on shelves – no serious enthusiasm – not enough sale – never sufficient funds to market more brands! Their renaissance began with the arrival of an independent group of entrepreneurs in 1987 – Cooley Distillers – who were hell bent on bringing back the former glory of these once prized whiskeys. They have since managed that rather nicely. The market has opened up. There is a renewed interest in Irish whiskey, worldwide. Hip- hip hurray, yippee and all that!

So how different are they from each other – the traditionalists and the new upstarts? The Irish distillers prize the pure, clean (unadulterated by smoke), fine malt taste of their whiskey attributing it to triple distillation and malting barley in enclosed, coal-fired kilns. Soft, mellow and mostly gentle Irish whiskeys. Cooley’s have, however, chosen a brand new path producing bold, Irish whiskies, some even peated. I love them all. From the gentle Jameson to the brave Black Bush, the fiery Connemara and the mellow Tyrconnel. Close your eyes and sip. Taste history. Sip some more. Was that a banshee wailing?!

 

Across the Atlantic are the bold flavours of Bourbon & Tennessee whiskies, the intriguing ones of the Canadian. Bourbon & Tennessee are made from mostly corn with bits of barley & rye (which gives these whiskeys a bite), sometimes wheat replacing the rye for a softer finish. The distilled ‘white dog’ is then aged in new American white oak casks which are charred from inside, giving bourbon that deep colour, caramelly sweetness followed by a oaky, tannic edge. Tennessee additionally filters the white dog through 10 feet of activated maple charcoal & wool, drop by drop over 10 – 15 days, mellowing it further and removing any heavy corn oils & congeners, before putting it to age. Hence the distinctive barbecued wood flavor on the palate. Jeff Arnett, master distiller at the Jack Daniel distillery described the maturation of Tennessee & bourbon whiskeys as akin to brewing good tea. Start with a good product, give it the right heat, just enough to bring out the best in its flavours. And so, some of the best bourbon & Tennessee you taste are between the ages of 7 & 12!

You need to be brave and genuinely appreciative of the distiller’s art to understand and savour American whiskeys. Of course, not being a snob helps! Most scotch is easy. Till your palate hits the smoky, peaty Islay malts. Bourbon & Tennessee too are powerful, testing and pushing your taste buds into waking up to a whole new world of taste. The dark chocolate & raisins of Jim Beam Black 8YO, the incredibly deep dried fruit of Knob Creek small batch, the intensely aromatic and soft Maker’s Mark, the smooth yet edgy triple copper pot distilled Woodford Reserve, the warm & silky George Dickel Barrel Select with a touch of dark chocolate mousse & Bounty and the ever evocative, leather jacket-studs-spike & Harley Davidson phenomenon known as Jack Daniel’s. Go on then. Dare.

Canadian whisky is unique in a way that completely separates it from the rest. The distiller creates individual whisky from individual grains – one each from corn (for sweetness), barley (for flavor), wheat (for a soft, creaminess) & rye (for its bite) – which can be distilled in different stills to varying strengths, then aged in a variety of casks. The master blender – like a great conductor – brings out his magic wand and orchestrates these whiskies into a blend that is the Canadian Whisky Symphony. Absolute artistry that results in the soft & gentle Canadian Club, the luscious Seagram’s Crown Royal and the defiantly mouth watering Forty Creek Barrel Select & Three Grain from Kittling Ridge. How can you keep your hands off such passion?

Just at the time when blended scotch whiskies were making their presence felt, the Japanese were showing a curious interest in this amber potion. Synthetic whiskies with diluted industrial alcohol and punched with colour and chemical essences flooded the market. Two pioneering men rose above the commonplace and shaped the future of the Japanese whisky industry as we know it today. Shinjiro Torii – the entrepreneur and Masataka Taketsuru – the distiller. Their aim – to make a whisky as close to scotch as possible in Japan. With support from Torii, Taketsuru went to Scotland, apprenticed at distilleries and came back to open the first distillery in Yamazaki. The name, Suntory. In 1934, Taketsuru decided he wanted his own distillery and set up Yoichi in Hokkaido, whose climate & terrain was closest to that of Scotland. The brand, Nikka. In spite of all their efforts to replicate scotch, they failed. But instead discovered their own style, with its individuality and character that became the hallmark of great Japanese whisky. Suntory & Nikka are today’s giants who paved the way for smaller craft distillers to showcase their skills. Single malts and blends with exceptional finesse is what you will find. I haven’t been able to get my hands on any serious ones yet, but medals in international forums and high praise by those in the know assure us that they are well worth the effort. I’m just waiting for an opportunity.

And just when you think that you’re all done, like a jack-in-the-box, out pops not just one but a range of single malts from a distillery in Bangalore, India. Amrut Distillers. Not a peep in the Indian marketplace, nothing to see and then this sudden trumpeting from international whisky competitions and malt experts. I was doing the Bourbon Whiskey Trail in Kentucky & Tennessee when an American journalist travelling with us asked me what I thought of the Amrut single malt. Imagine my consternation when I drew a complete blank! It threw me. Whacked me out. I was embarrassed to say the least. I hadn’t a clue. He insisted I should give it a go as thought it was surprisingly good. And so I came back and searched. Not a sign. Looked up the site, sent them a mail and found that most of it was only sold in the export market, though had just launched two in Bangalore. Got my hands on them finally. Made from barley grown in Punjab, and distilled and matured in Bangalore. There’s the sweet, biscuity, Amrut Indian Single malt with a distinctly bourbon nose and the warmly peaty Amrut Fusion Single Malt (a blend of Indian barley and peated Scottish barley), with a sweet toffee nose, hint of spice on the middle enveloped by a honeyed finish. Why did the rest of the world have access to it before we did? Well, they wanted to face the wolves and get them to say yay. Against the best in the world. Then come home with the laurels.

Yahoo, yippee and more. Jim Murray said so too. After all, he is utterly believable.

So yes, there is life, and whisk(e)y beyond scotch. But before I retire, some sage advice from W.C. Fields – “Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of a snakebite. And furthermore, always carry a small snake.”

Shatbhi Basu