American firms buying Scotch whisky companies proves the category has a bright future ahead of it.
Late night in downtown Bangalore: street food carts and alleys, electrical shops and eye clinics, faltering neon. Push through crowds along rutted pavements, with the constant pulse of horns and drone of motorbike engines, down some steps into a blasted out concrete bunker with a warren of side rooms.
Men – all men – move in a strange choreography, weave and dodge to the high bar, order from the pink shirted barkeep, hands blurring as a tetra pak of local whisky is bought, corner snipped, its contents poured into a glass, topped with water and brought to mouth.
Some slam it back, some take three gulps and others stand in groups talking. More take their place – order, hand over notes, take the packet, snip, pour, top up, drink… and repeat.
Apart from one guy who buys two miniatures of 100 Pipers for his ritual serve, everything served was local. This is whisky drinking Indian style.
Why isn’t Scotch breaking through? Look around. ‘We have two sorts of connoisseurs,’ my friend Vikram tells me. ‘The single malt ones and these guys. Don’t be fooled. They know what they want and if you alter your whisky in any way, they will tell you. Their fathers drank this brand, and their grandfathers.’
With Scotch three times as expensive as the local whisky, it looks like a tough road for many brands – but I’m not concerned here about strategic approaches for Scotch. Daniel Jones has done that recently (and if you haven’t read his piece yet, I recommend that you do, here). Instead, standing there in the noise and elbow jostle it made me wonder what we think of when we think of whisky, and what that response says about our own prejudices.
Logic suggests that the best place to see how whisky is drunk is where the bulk of whisky is consumed – call it a pub, dive bar, cantina, shebeen, or these ‘retail’ and ‘wines’ in India. You find them in almost every country – the hole in the wall where people have always congregated to drink, sing, debate and laugh. Places of domino tile slam and noise, camaraderie and purposeful drinking.
The whisky could be a taken from a bottle on a table, or in bulbous glasses littering the bar; in half-pints of Highballs in red-faced, sleeved-shirt, smoke-filled izakayas beside the tracks in Japan, or here in the dim light of snip and drink India. You don’t find out how South Africa drinks whisky by cowering in five star hotel bars in Sandton, but by going to Sowetan shebeens.
What whisky? What we call ‘standard’ brands. Whisky might have gained credibility and momentum when it became an acceptable middle class drink but it has continued to be built in places like these, and by brands such as these.
As a category, Scotch cannot survive on cocktails or high-priced single malts. There always has to be something (and by extension someone) doing the heavy lifting, and that will be what is known as – often dismissively – ‘standard’ blends.
Whisky grew thanks to Jack or Jim, or the two Johns – Jameson and Walker. (Enough of the Js, Ed). Yes, single malt is vital to the growing health of Scotch. It widens the notion of what whisky is (and can be), pulls in new drinkers, gussies the image up, and it will continue to have a growing influence. But – and it’s a big but – the importance of the ‘standard’ brand remains crucial.
It’s also worth pausing to consider what ‘standard’ means – a word for the basic, or instead something which sets a standard? Don’t sneer at them, don’t dismiss them, because when you do, you insult the people who drink (and make) them.
Instead, next time you are in a bar order one, mix it and enjoy.
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