Where and how did India’s love for whiskies begin? Well, rewind to 150 years ago and whisky wasn’t popular. In fact, whisky almost went unnoticed till the phylloxera plague of the late nineteenth century which decimated vineyards across Europe. The wine industry suffered to no end as production dwindled to a bare trickle and even the winemakers tried all methods, scientific and otherwise, to combat this pestilence. Finally the answer came from where the problem had originally (but unknowingly, I must quickly clarify) been exported, the US of A. American rootstocks were found to be resistant to this particular yellow louse and thus by grafting European grape variety shoots on to American rootstocks the wine industry managed to make a comeback. But the loss was insurmountable nevertheless. One such setback was the hit cognac production had to take. With no grapes, there was no wine to distil, age and blend to make cognac.
Worst hit by this paucity of precious cognac were the drawing rooms of the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, who found themselves terminally out of stock of their favourite post-dinner digestif. The whole ‘retiring to the cigar room in our smoking jackets’ ritual took a dive and the rich, as is their wont, panicked on account of their affluent apprehensions. It was then that someone suggested scotch. People had heard about this ‘single malt business’, a fiery drink that the neighbouring Scots drank. It kept them warm as was imagined but it was also allegedly linked to their boorish behaviour. In fact folklore had it that the famous Scottish accent (well, it wasn’t exactly ‘famous’ back then, more ‘distinct but not distinguished’) was a result of drinking too much of this stuff. But if ever there was a malt that could make me sound like Sean Connery, sign me up!
While all this may have been new for the English, this tipple wasn’t a recent discovery for the Scots. They had been making it since the mid-fifteenth century. The monks introduced them to the art of distillation and it became popular in those parts, although, how it was aged, or whether it was aged at all, is up for contention. The next two hundred years saw the Scots hone their skills with the aqua vitae or ‘water of life’. It was only the severe taxation introduced in the early eighteenth century that put a spanner in the works. Distilling almost entirely went underground and for every illicit still that was confiscated, ten more sprang up. Realizing the futility of it all, the laws were amended in 1823 to make running a distillery a more conducive affair and almost immediately the smuggling and bootlegging disappeared. While whisky continued to be produced, it remained largely a local interest with the upper crust of London preferring to entertain with aged French distillates instead.
But once the phylloxera crisis hit and scaled, the cognac stocks (and the whisky jokes) quickly dried up. The need for a suitable replacement was immediate and urgent and the English curiously explored this drink of Gaelic origins.
Not only was it not bad, it was in fact darned good. To the Scots’ advantage, unlike cognac, which relied a lot on the availability of a stable base wine, whisky ingredients were easier sourced and processed and since the beverage had only just found somewhat of a fame, stocks weren’t about to run out any time soon. To this was introduced the added advantage of the invention of the coffey still (1831, also known as a patent still, and nothing to do with coffee) which was used to churn out (grainbased) whisky in industrial proportions and one can see how it all came together brilliantly. Cognac, armagnac and even single malts are made using pot stills which may yield a more flavourful spirit than the patent still but being able to process only smaller quantities at one time are much more time-consuming. Considering that these were times when nobody particularly minded grain whisky or blends thereof, the market belonged to the Scots.
So that was how whisky came to be. But as shared, it was mostly blends that were popular. Distilleries shipped aged barrels (minimum three years as per law) and these were tapped once they arrived at the destination. Bottling didn’t happen till much later. As for single malts, they barely came into existence around the 1800s. Records vary, and each distillery will vouch for being the oldest/first, but Georges Smith obtained an official licence for The Glenlivet in 1824. The Macallan too was given birth to in the same year by Alexander Reid, a barley farmer. Often these brands were much plagiarized given their early repute and a special ruling from 1884 accorded The Glenlivet the right to prefix ‘The’ to their name in order to distinguish them from the many other Glenlivets. Come to think of it, there also used to exist a Macallan-Glenlivet!
Glenfiddich which dates back to 1887 was also a pioneer and was possibly the first to bottle its single malts in glass bottles. It was also perhaps the first to send its whisky to India and we have (invoice) records showing a transfer of stock dating back to 1909! Charles Gordon even visited India for what was most likely a business trip to a burgeoning market.
Safe to say that India’s tryst with scotch is more than a hundred years old even if back then it was a reserved privilege for the English officers and other bureaucrats posted in India. It was also extended to, perhaps, the ‘finer’ of the Indian lot, for whom being allowed to share some scotch with the English in exchange for their freedom was a fair swap.
But how scotch came to be allowed into India is entirely a different story. When in the late nineteenth century the British planned to officially introduce scotch in India, the locals vehemently objected to this foreign poison. Opposition to the English was stronger than ever before and any such product was bound to meet with criticism. Plus, the Indians argued – as pointed out earlier – that they already had their traditional intoxicant: ganja, or the hemp plant. The tip of the leaves of the female plant, to be precise. If you already knew that, then you know exactly how or why I know that too.
So the British, in a fashion most suited to their innate nature, set up a commission to study and report on whether hemp was in any way more harmful than scotch. They believed that the results would help pave the way for scotch into India.
They were right, for the commission found that hemp was no more harmful than scotch whisky. This was the much-awaited green signal for importing scotch into India. It also highlighted that cannabis was essentially a soft drug and hence its social use could be allowed to continue.
Many years later, in 1961, the US, in its efforts to combat the growing drug problem – am not getting into whether the CIA had a role to play or not – managed to list cannabis as a hard drug, and India, in its constant endeavour to appease the West, too, banned cannabis (1987) in all its forms. Not only did it mean that the shops selling Cannabis sativa would no longer exist, it also gave rise to a black market for the stuff where the trade was now ten times as profitable. Thus, ironically enough, bhang became as profitable as heroin, the original hard drug had thus been fulfilled.
Eventual outcome, we acquired a ‘foreign poison’ and lost our own thousandyear old elixir, the one that was recognized as ‘. . . the joy-giver, the poor man’s heaven, the soother of grief ’. Not my words, those are lifted from the Hemp Commission’s report. Also, all this sneaking about the system now gave us our very own legit drug problem, the one we didn’t have all along. A self-fulfilling prophecy had thus been fulfilled.
Excerpted with permission from The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Alcohol in India, Magandeep Singh, Penguin Random House.