The list indeed casts a smattering of the top whisky-world celebrities: Johnny Walker, Glenfiddich, The Macallan. I will see these names over and over again along the way, with very few esoteric marques or smaller distilleries listed on menus. As it turns out, the availability of brands is only as vast as the suppliers willing to register within the Indian state in which they wish to sell. In other words, a whisky brand must pay to play here. This makes the odds of finding some of the more boutique whisky brands small, and of finding American Bourbons beyond Gentlemen Jack’s and Jack Daniels close to zero. What I do find, however, is that the settings and service that accompany the smaller whisky selections literally take my breath away.
“I boil the water four times. Then, I let it cool to room temperature again. After this, I pour the water into little moulds and freeze them. This is what makes your ice cube clear and smooth for your Glenfiddich 12;” explains Devender Sehgal, bartender at Rick’s as he drops one of the tiny works of art into my tumbler. He takes pride in this detailed work; a true pioneer in a city that is only beginning to dabble in cocktail-making. Without many peers who share his passion, or even a plethora of venues from which to draw inspiration, I am even more impressed when he carefully pulls out a crystal bottle of his own bitters to create a special cocktail. The panoply of Indian spices used are infused for more than a year, with the hints of cloves, cinnamon, cardamon and mandarin intermingling elegantly with Glenfiddich 12 in a way I’ve never experienced before, an unruly and exotic take on a very familiar spirit.
That the charm of drinking whisky in India might be borne of the sensuality that surrounds the experience rather than a slick list crosses my mind.
“Please stay and watch the light change from day into night. Tonight we will light 2,000 candles, as we do every night. You will see what it is to drink whisky in a palace like this.” I do not turn down Dilip Nair, the food and beverage manager at the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. I wait for evening to arrive among the marble pillars, inner gardens, and courtyards of this mystical water palace, created by the 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of the Mewar in the 18th century. The cloud-like marble masterpiece floats magically above Lake Udaipur, surrounded by water and visited by hundreds of songbirds who make their home among the trees in the innermost sanctum. I discover that the exquisite inlays of different coloured stones on the marble walls were inspired by the actual Taj Mahal at Agra, and sit in an open-air terrace lined with rose petals, marigolds and jasmine. Other than these dashes of colour, everything else reflects the slowly setting sun in pearly shades of cream and white. I settle on a soft white couch with loads of pillows around me and watch as the lanterns and candles appear to become more bright. This is not a reproduction of a palace, this is the actual domain of royalty who still frequent it. “It is about the experience here, the set-up, and the romance. That is what makes drinking whisky special. I hope you are pleased.”
Not every experience in India is so relaxing. A couple of nights before arriving in Udaipur, I experience the most harrowing drive of my life. Indian roads are anarchy. My Indian driver put it thus: “There are four things a driver must have in India: good breaks, a good horn, a good eye, and good luck.” These virtues come into play as we encounter a cargo truck coming towards us at 80km per hour, driving on the wrong side. I believe in a millisecond that these are the last moments of my life. The driver, a veteran of 30 years on Indian highways manages to avoid the collision and yells, “That's India!” I ask the driver to delay checking into my hotel and to bring me, please, to the nicest bar he knows of in Jaipur. I am not surprised that I end up at another Taj owned palace, The Ramblagh, and am immediately calmed by giant fires lit among the tables and fountains to warm guests under the stars.
Travelling India would not be complete without catching some sort of malady, and I oblige this rite-of-passage. My last stop in India is at Taj’s flagship in Mumbai before I head back to New York, and I arrive in the crumbly city with a swollen throat and a hankering for a deep nap. My eyes water and my voice croaks “thank you” to the pretty woman who hangs marigolds around my neck at check-in. Service is so observant that I am immediately offered the services of a butler who will “Surely bring you a hot Toddy, a great remedy for a sore throat.” My Toddy arrives on a silver tray with big seeds of cardamon and lemon floating in it. Slightly medicinal, somewhat spicy, and extremely delicious, the warm elixir coats my throat and induces a sleepiness that I try to fight. These are my last days in India, and I have no plans to lie in bed sick. I decide to compromise and sit beside the pool. I listen to hundreds of beeping of car horns beyond the palace domes. A sunset concert is taking place outside the hotel at the famous India Gate, and I think I can make out the faint rhythm of a tabla.
I suddenly realise that I don’t even know what whisky is in this Toddy, and I feel a slight and instant panic, as if as a whisky aficionado I've failed some fundamental test: knowing exactly which whisky is being served to me. But I have been seduced: by the service, the setting, the sky, and the sounds. Drinking whisky here, it turns out, is secondary.