Business Today

A State of Mind

Great single malt whisky is like Jazz. The more you endeavour to understand it, the more you will love it
Devraj Sanyal   New Delhi     Print Edition: September 24, 2017
A State of Mind
The writer is Managing Director & CEO, India & South Asia, Universal Music Group (Photo: Rachit Goswami )

Nothing has ever made me happier than sitting alone at my bar with a Balvenie 16 while listening to Shofukhan by Snarky Puppy. Many times I have been asked what's the one drink that I couldn't do without. While it's a tough choice between some Montalcino or Barollo versus the best single malt whisky, I'd have to admit that if I had to drink one drink for the rest of my life, single malt whisky would win hands down.

My earliest memory of being introduced properly to single malt was at my mentor and friend Ashok Kurien's house more than a decade ago. Ashok, being the ultimate advertising professional, was back then the consummate malt connoisseur who knew more about the finer points of malt than most. Over the years, our evenings with malt have been nothing short of epic with memories of "The Tour of Scotland" where we'd start with a Speyside Malt and move to a Highlands Malt, then to the Lowlands & Campbeltown, and topped off with some Islay Malt and, finally, the Islands. I must admit that after the tour you are likely to be quite intoxicated but having tasted heaven in the evening is the most beautiful and fulfilling feeling in the world. While the tour makes for a fun evening, I must take a moment to explain what these regions and their distilleries mean. Once you grasp this, you are on your way to becoming a serious malt whisky drinker.

Let's start with the Speyside Single Malts, which come from the north-east of Scotland (around the river Spey), which probably has the highest number of distilleries in Scotland. These malts are best defined as ultra-smooth and sweet with almost no peat. Peaty malts are famous too, so the distinction must be made. You would know these malts, as the most famous of these are Glenfiddich, Glenlivet Balvenie and Dalwhinnie, to name a few.

The other most famous Macallan is a Speyside Malt and there is a long-standing argument whether it's a Speyside or a Highland whisky. The Highlands are a large part of Scotland. Because of the incredibly diverse tastes that these malts offer, its very difficult to label these to a single reference point. You would know these from brands such as Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Oban, Glengoyle and the Singleton.

The Lowlands, though quite large, have only four distilleries, and tend to be gentle and mild with no peatiness; these are often triple-distilled, as the region is far from the sea. The most famous brands are Auchentoshan & GlenKinchie. Now, the other three regions are where the smoky & peaty malt whiskies come from. Campbeltown is a tiny area and has a handful of distilleries which produce abundantly robust and smoky malts such as Springbank and Glengyle. Somehow, I never got into these and preferred the Speyside, Highlands & Lowlands during the summer months and the Islay & the Island malts during winter. The Islay malt whiskies are peaty and strong and everyone knows them through probably the most known malt brands like Lagavulin, Laphroig and Ardberg. The island malts top off the list with the peaty but equally famous Jura, Highland Park & Talisker.

To the regular malt drinker, a large combination of these forms our primary list of single malts that you would find in any of our home bars. Most purists would consider a malt not coming from Scotland a sacrilege to serve. But in the past few years, we have seen a colossal change in where some of the most incredible malt whiskys come. Japan has been leading the charge with two distilleries - Nikka and Suntory.

Between these two distillers they have been producing some of the finest malt whiskys, which are almost impossible to find at a duty-free easily. Serving them today is almost like a social statement if you are in the know and can procure these freely. Nikka from the Barrel, Yamazaki, Hakushu, Hibiki, Miyagiyko, Akashi & the Yoichi are the pride of the new connoisseur's bar. Most rounded and always smooth and never really peaty, these whiskys have made it to the top of many global lists and is on the new malt drinker's most wanted list.

India also, in the last five years, has produced some top-class malts that have made the world stage, winning several awards, beating the most well-known Speyside & Highland malts. The most famous ones are Amrut & Paul John. I have had these several times and I must admit that they are quite special. A little bit of patriotic pride mixed with some of the finest single malts is an unbeatable combination.

The one thing that separates us malt drinkers is the way we drink our malts. On any given day, you will give people drinking it differently. A lot of us drink it straight up, on the rocks, straight up with an equal measure of water and then rocks with water. All of them are correct, though experts will tell us that the best way is to have it straight up with a dash of water to open up the taste. People who drink their malts in tall glasses with soda or a mixer are strict no-nos in my book and I'll get my secret stash out for them.

Malts and cigars are known to be a heady combination and literally all my malt buddies are cigar smokers. While I will occasionally indulge, I've now figured out it's not for me. Malt and music are more my style. Being a music executive and having one of the largest collections of music digitally and on vinyl I will tell you this. Nothing will beat the feeling of a good malt with some music. To me it's as important as the dash of water. Music magically transforms my malt to the best feeling that I can remember feeling.

To my mind, great single malt whisky is like Jazz. The more you endeavour to understand it, the more you will love it. The more you try it, the more you will love it. The more variety you try, the more into it you will get. Single malt whisky is ultimately a state of mind and it's a wonderful place to be. I encourage everyone to try it.

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