As more friends switch loyalty to single malts — even if not yet to specific labels, which remain subject to availability and frequent-flyer duty free access — I cannot but wonder at the change over the last few years. As a frequent party-goer, I can tell you how a gathering will unspool on the basis of the whisky being served. If the host and guests are wetting their lips with blended whiskies, you can be sure it will end raucously, and goodbyes in the driveway will be loud enough to wake up the neighbours. Single malt evenings, on the other hand, are like a civilisational barometer to good taste and likely to lead to discussions on (hopefully) single malts, good books, symphony music — the point being that single malt drinkers are discerning enough to prefer the finer things of life.
If this sounds discriminatory, it probably is. Yet, I have seen kids fresh out of college and into their first jobs discuss the merits of one single malt over another to agree that for taste and value, Glenfiddich does it for them every time over Glenlivet, say, or Glenmorangie. Any talk about the eponymous Black Label, on the other hand, will rarely rise above the commerce of buying it duty free at New Delhi’s T3 vis-à-vis, say, Dubai (comparable), or London (more expensive). As someone who is unable to enjoy blended whiskies, I’m amused with “whisky-shisky” drinkers’ attempts to arrive at any one label that eliminates the mysteries of nosing, ageing, vatting, single- or double-casking — all the elements that add up to the excitement of — dare I say it? — the more evolved drinker who savours rather than quaffs his 30 ml.
I should have wondered what my daughter, doing a sophomore semester in London, was up to in Scotland over a weekend, but was instead ridiculously pleased that she chose to bribe away uncomfortable questions by picking up a Balvenie 15-year-old from the Scotch Whisky Museum. The Balvenie of preference at home has been the 12-year-old, and not because it is entry level — at ₹5,800 a 700 ml bottle in stores, it can hardly be accused of that — but because, as most of those who sat down to a Balvenie-pairing dinner recently, agreed, “It deserves all the accolades that it gets.”
Because I’m getting ahead here, let me take you back to a momentous occasion for single malt drinkers, a group of whom from the world of fashion, lifestyle and business had gathered for a tasting of Balvenie’s 40-year-old single malt. Four such batches were prepared in all, the process having begun in 1970. Each batch has only 150 bottles, and only the tiniest of drams was offered up for the tasting that was conducted virtually by master-blender David Stewart from Scotland. Stewart has been threatening to retire and may hand over the baton after the 50-year-old Balvenie is uncasked later this year. But it is the 40-year-old that is his baby and he spoke convincingly of its “floral sweetness”.
The whole point of the evening, though, was a tasting of variously aged Balvenies — and at our table, at least, the pendulum swung in favour of the flirtier 12- and 15-year olds. The Twelve wasn’t new for me, but I have to say the
Fifteen was my pick, and not just because it was my daughter’s choice. The Twenty-one was comme ci, comme ca as far as I was concerned — a good whisky but which hardly registered on the palate — reiterating what is now common knowledge among single-malters, that beyond two decades, the wood adds little flavour to a whisky.
I certainly wouldn’t have given up the Forty for anything that evening — and for those of you wanting to pad your cellars, alas, only two bottles from the batch were offered for sale in India, pegs of which are available at Park Hyatt, Hyderabad (where retail is likely to be ₹30,000-40,000 for a 30 ml measure), while the other bottle, till the time of writing, was still up for grabs. At that price, the pleasure is likely to be a huge squeeze on the wallet, but a quick search found me a 40-year-old Dalmore, at ₹1.25 lakh for the bottle, certainly isn’t cheap either — and that is before import duty and hotel markups. At ₹9-10 lakh for a bottle of Banffshire history, the Balvenie Forty will be more than just Stewart’s swansong.
The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator