Whiskey brings up a montage of memories, not necessarily pleasant ones. I recall drinking whiskey for 10 years for the simple reason that my father did too. Admittedly it wasn’t the best stuff nor was I the most discerning acolyte; 10 years of hangovers later though, I switched to clear spirits with the notable exception of Gin despite quite a few friends exhorting me to quit drinking that crap and switch to real booze, i.e. single malts. There may be something to what they said, though I still object to my favorites, Beer and Vodka referred to as crap.
I recall attending a Glenfiddich appreciation session a while back – superb food and an epiphany of sorts; my hitherto snoring palate (for alcohol) came alive and was able to let me know I liked two vintages and detested the other two. Instruction wasn’t too impressive, so I didn’t take away much from that session, except for the fact… I. Could. Drink. Whiskey!
December 2012 however, saw it happening again; three Dalmore appreciation sessions in quick succession. Sessions conducted by the formidable Sandeep Arora that proved to not only induct me into the esoteric world of single malts, but also to gain some insight into why they’re so revered. Three sessions, one each at Elitaire @ The Leela Kempinski, Diya @ The Leela Kempinski and Masala Art @ Taj Palace. The first showcased the whiskey with western food and the others, with Indian food. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to skip the Western food pairing (done to death) and focus on Indian food pairing, specifically, the stuff from Diya at the Leela Kempinski, Gurgaon. Masala Art had the honor of hosting the first tasting of the Dalmore 15Yo though, an event we were told was a story for the grandchildren.
The whiskies on show at Diya were the Isle of Jura 16Y0, The Dalmore 12Yo and The Gran Reserva, each paired with a different platter. It was great having Sandeep (my guest for the evening) around as he’s just as whacky as I am, if not more, when it comes to experimenting with food and drink. Shouldn’t be too hard to imagine; just think of two bespectacled six year old boys with sombre expressions and heavy crystal glasses filled with an amber fluid in their hands, nodding seriously every once in a while.
Before I start on the pairing, a little history and information on Dalmore may be useful. In case you go looking, you’ll find the Dalmore Distillery on the shore of the Cromarty Firth in the spectacular Highlands of Scotland and once there, in case you think it looks a little old, I should tell you it was founded in 1839 by Alexander Matheson.
Did you know a single bottle of 62 year old Dalmore was once sold for 25,000 British Pounds? That bottle was supposedly finished off in a single evening by the purchaser who very generously shared the liquor with his friends.
So, what’s a single malt anyway? It’s a whiskey that’s made at a single distillery in Scotland using malted barley as the only grain input, via the pot stilling process. Single Malts also inherit the standard scotch whiskey requirement of maturation for at least 3 years in oak casks in Scotland. Having said that, most single malts are matured longer than 3 years as is evident from their names – 16 years for the Isle of Jura and 12 years for the Dalmore 12 Yo. The Gran Reserva is a slightly different creature that’s a blend of 10 to 15 year old whiskies (from both sherry butts and Bourbon barrels) aged for a further six months in upstanding sherry butts. The maturation process gives the alcohol it’s color and is responsible for many of the flavor characteristics single malts are respected for. While you’ll find external coloring agents in some whiskies, Dalmore single malts get their color exclusively from the maturation process.
Single Malts differ in aroma, flavor and finish from region to region and are categorised per the following regions – Highland, Islay, Lowland and Cambeltown. Highland is further split into Island and Speyside. The Dalmore 15Yo for example is a Highland Single Malt. You’ll probably want to try them all and decide upon your personal favorite. This is one activity where advice isn’t going to help and you’ll have to make up your own mind. Perhaps the Dalmore 15Yo would be a good starting point. If doing it the right way is important to you, get hold of some tulip shaped glasses (narrower at the top essentially), which trap the aromas of the liquid and allow a satisfactory ‘nosing’. Don’t stick your beak all the way into the glass, as we were warned by Sandeep; you’ll only sense alcohol and little else. Instead, hold the rim of the glass about an inch away from your nose and then take in the true aromas of the whiskey. Sip it slowly after gently swirling the liquid around your glass, savoring the feel of the liquid over your tongue and breathe in air through your mouth; if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to recognize flavors on your very first time. If not, like me, you’ll take a little time. My first time happened at the Elitaire session where I could discern banana, caramel and woody flavors within. Your palate may come up with different flavors, such as citrus, berries almonds or even iodine!
Some authorities on Whiskey, including Sandeep Arora, advise keeping whiskey in the mouth for a certain period of time before swallowing it; one second for every year of it’s age – 12 seconds for the 12Yo and so on.
On to the meal!
Isle of Jura 16 Yo
We started with Isle of Jura 16 Yo, paired with Malai Prawns and Bhatti ka Murg for non-vegetarians and Navrattan Kebab and Sunheri Bhutte ki Tikki for vegetarians. Also on the platter were three chutneys; tomato-ginger-garlic, mint-coriander and hung curd-mustard, each with startlingly different reactions to the whiskey. The tomato chutney mellowed down the alcohol, took away most of it’s bite and transformed the whiskey into a mellifluous fluid. The mint chutney didn’t react so well making the green-ness of the chutney very pronounced, somewhat like grass but with more character while still mellowing down the alcohol. The worst was the mustard chutney, with which the whiskey tasted utterly horrible; I shuddered a full 30 seconds later from the after-taste.
Remember, these are very personal notes and your experience could be quite different from mine. The notes above are only an indicator of the nature of the whiskey in how it reacts differently with different food-stuffs.
Being unable to eat shrimp, I received a Galauti kebab instead, which I’m not a big fan of. The Isle of Jura 16 Yo however went along famously with the soft and highly spiced kebab while only choosing to nod at the Bhatti Murg, which I feel may have been too mildly spiced.
Single Malt: Isle of Jura 16Yo
Maturation: American White Oak and Apostoles, Amoroso and Olosoro Sherry Wood
Color: Deep Mahogany
Nose: Orange Marmalade, Cedary, Spiced Notes
Taste: Mandarin, Vanilla, Ginger and Almonds
The Dalmore 12Yo
Our second course, consisting of The Dalmore 12Yo was accompanied by a serving of Amritsari Tawa Boti, Hyderabadi Gosht Biryani and Murg Khurchan while vegetarians were served Gucchi aur Khumb ka Mela, Khumani Bhara Kofta. Also on my platter was a bowl of Dal (lentils) and a serving of spiced spinach. Quite surprisingly, the Dalmore 12Yo was awesome with the Dal. It instantly transformed the whiskey into a soothing liquid that blended with the simple flavors of the dal delivering a rich, soft and smooth finish.
When you attend appreciation dinners, while the meal is carefully planned for optimum pairing with the alcohol, it doesn’t have to work for you as tasting notes are individual to you and your palate. If the food isn’t working for you, it could be the food, not you.
The Biryani didn’t work for me as nothing changed and no magic happened for better or for worse while the Amritsari Tava Boti was downhill all the way. The food itself was quite good, but it seemed to intensify everything I find unpleasant about whiskey. Interestingly, the Murg Khurchan worked exactly the same way as the Dal.
Single Malt: The Dalmore 12Yo
Maturation: American White Oak and Olosoro Sherry Wood
Color: Deep, Golden Mahogany
Nose: Orange Marmalade, Aromatic Spice
Taste: Citrus, Hint of Sweet Vanilla Pods
The Dalmore Gran Reserva
Our third and final course was the Dalmore Gran Reserva, served in a chilled glass and paired with Kesar Pista Kulfi. I confess to not liking this drink or the pairing much. Perhaps it’s because I don’t care for sweets much or maybe it’s just my fussy palate.
Single Malt: The Dalmore Gran Reserva
Maturation: American White Oak and Matusalem Olosoro Sherry Wood
Color: Rich Walnut and Golden Mahogany
Nose: Citrus, Dried Fruits, Oloroso Sherry
Taste: Christmas Cake, Ripe Oranges and Lemon Peel
Some will tell you the only way to drink a single malt is as it is – neat. Others will advise you to add a few drops of water and yet others, a few drops of hot water. The advised method is to add not more than 20% water at room temperature; that’ll allow the whiskey to release flavor compounds, making your experience more fulfilling. Having said that, do it whatever way works for you.
If you haven’t started yet, it’s never too late. My journey started 20 years after my first sip of alcohol and I’m enjoying the ride. In any case, you can’t go wrong with Dalmore Single Malts, so go on, take your first sip and remember to skip the ice.