The Good Life

Royal diktat

How A monarch’s choice of chhota peg paved the way for legal distillation of scotch whiskey

Wine is romantic, whisky is not — right? Wrong. As the malt that goes into each blend ages in oak casks, it loses 2% every year to evaporation, a loss that is adding up to the inventory over 12, 15, 18 or 21 years. One would think the Scots would be mad about this loss. Wrong again. With a fair degree of gallows humour, they forfeit that loss to a heavenly world, describing it as angel’s share. It’s something to remember when you’re swirling an 18-year-old Aberlour in a dram, watching the viscous spirit cling to the glass before it eases its way down. Wine connoisseurs call this legs; Scotch master blenders label this angel’s tears — because they aren’t getting any more.

Great Scot

For an industry whose origins lay in illicit distillation, the Scotch whisky tradition has come a long way to gaining legal status and becoming a legitimate tax-paying business. An apocryphal tale has King George IV asking for Glenlivet by name in 1822 on a visit to Edinburgh, knowing that it was illegally produced and that his coffers were being robbed of taxes. Of course, a bottle or two were hastily produced for the monarch.

Nearly two centuries later, this tale still makes for a great fireside story. Back then, distilleries tucked their stills away in forested highland glens to make it difficult for excise inspectors to locate them. So, it was a bold move on part of George Smith, when, in 1824, he sought a licence to produce Glenlivet legally, close to where its illegal stills once functioned.

As it did back then, the spring water that goes into the whisky comes from its original source — Josie’s Well, although who Josie was has been lost in the mists of time. As for Smith, instead of being complimented for his troubles, he invited the wrath of his peers and whisky smugglers, necessitating the use of his flintlock on several occasions.

Thanks to him, Glenlivet continues to flow freely and legally in my — and a million other — bars around the world. It’s the largest single malt brand in the US — and the second-largest worldwide — due to the lifting of prohibition in 1933, which coincided with the visit of Glenlivet’s Capt Bill Smith Grant. In those days, miniature bottles of Glenlivet would be served on Pullman trains plying the great Midwest. The two Georges have reason to be proud of what they started. 

At the Glenlivet distillery, this history is on my mind as I am allowed the honour of filling my very own bottle of whisky, straight from a cask of bourbon. It has a strength of 50.7%, just a whiff of which is enough to ignite the senses. Which is also why you might need more than the two regulation cubes of ice to tame its fiery spirit. As I fill in the details on the label and then in a register so that Her Majesty’s exchequer isn’t robbed of the tax on this  £70 privilege, I think of gifting it to my son — hoping to share it with him soon.

To be continued...

—The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator