Whisky and a taste of India
By Sandeep Arora
At a private dinner in Kolkata last week, I made some interesting observations. Quite a few women guests were enjoying whisky and were curious to understand the concept of food pairing with whisky. They were keen to know how to serve better food and more 'relevant' snacks at home. They had lot of questions and also displayed a remarkable understanding of the amber nectar. It was a warm and welcoming sight although a little surprising as well. Kolkata, in the east of India, has had relatively less exposure to whisky and spirits in general, although it seems to be changing now.

A few years back, these lady guests would have either not enjoyed spirits or perhaps settled for wine. The transition over the last few years has been bold and expressive. Whisky, in India, is increasingly being enjoyed by women and even stronger flavours of Islay malts are well appreciated. The growth has been steady and firm.

As Indians, we are... well... 'A whisky nation' and enjoy over a 150 million cases of whisky every year, of both Indian and international brands. We are definitely high on spirits.

Over the last few years there has been a generic shift towards whisky becoming a lifestyle trend. Men and an increasing number of women are enjoying the flavours of Scotch whisky!

In India, whisky, has for a long time been portrayed as a manly, hairs-on-the-chest growing tipple. Although the truth is, whisky has long been appreciated and enjoyed by women.

Over the last two years, the number of women drinkers has seen a significant rise. It is not possible to gauge accurately the number of women whisky drinkers in India, as yet, but I have been observing that across whisky tastings and appreciations, the number of women enjoying a whisky is almost 30 per cent more than two years ago. I feel that this switch can be attributed to the more positive imagery of the category, advent of single malts and above all a more refined drinking culture. Presentation of whisky across formal appreciations hosted in luxury hotels has also added to the discovery of the nectar. From my own experience of hosting numerous corporate whisky appreciations across the country, I am quite delighted by the number of women who attend. Most of these attendees are not coming to the tasting because their partner is into whisky, but because they have a genuine enjoyment and appreciation for whisky itself. For newcomers, it is also a sense of curiosity and desire to learn more.

As I researched this feature, I wanted to understand the various styles of whisky being enjoyed by women. I realised that some women in their 50s and 60s have been drinking whisky for almost 30 years! Enjoying the spirits, mostly blended whiskies and with a fairly regular frequency of consumption. They are generally soft-spoken, well mannered and enjoy hospitality. The are not particularly brand conscious, but will drink any good imported brands. They also enjoy whisky at parties, bars and at social engagements.

Those born in the 70s enjoyed whisky a bit less in their relatively younger days, but are now really grabbing their single malts, even comparing notes with friends at parties and drinking at home with their spouse or partner. They are balancing traditions and modern lifestyles, well educated and are what I call 'Generation in Transition.'

Ms. Kamal Mohandas, designer and ex-model staying in Bengaluru, was an avid vodka drinker. She enjoyed wine, but preferred vodka until she attended a Royal Salute 21 Years Old whisky dinner at Taj Westend Hotel, in Bengaluru, in 2013. She enjoyed the taste, the elegance and converted to whisky. Even last week, when I met with her, she was exploring whiskies and sampling single malts and was looking forward to cracking open The Glenlivet 15 Years Old.

Carrying good single malt is a must on all holidays. Offering a selection of whisky and sharing some new malt with guests, including showcasing tasting notes, is a natural trend!

Ms. Swarna Reddy, real estate tycoon from Chennai, has her favourites which includes an Oban 14 Years Old and Talisker. Interestingly, until two or three years ago, she did not like whisky, since she felt the standard Scotch whisky that was passed around was not exciting, so instead enjoyed wine. She got converted to malts and has not looked back. She enjoys her malts with some water, with a German Shepherd next to her and planning on a fireplace to enhance the total setting.

The generation born in 80s is the one to watch out for. Independent, stylish and bent on enjoying life - not just wanting to earn well, but also spend well. These are women who enjoy a drink for the pleasure of it, not just based on its tag or positioning. More over, the drink needs to be a statement in itself and also 'communicate' with them. Wine is fine, vodka on occasions, whisky of course... a good single malt is a great drink.

The more recent and exciting trend occurring in the Indian whisky industry is the definite shift of perception. Whisky is no longer perceived as the traditional Scottish, pipe, tartan and slippers drink of old. According to Ms. Meenakshi Thakur, Taj Bengal, Kolkata, "whisky is becoming perceived as a very sophisticated, intelligent, premium and complex spirit, thus appealing to the urban women, who are frequenting bars more often."

Whisky brands are also building an environment, where women and whisky are matching well.

The new generation of young professional female whisky drinkers are also introducing their friends, colleagues and clients to the spirit. Women like to try new things, like to sit down and nose whisky and taste it and they are not afraid of saying whether they like it or not.

One thing that need not be entertained is 'hand holding' of women drinking whisky. "The only time I have a problem is when a bartender pours my malt, then starts adding water and says 'say when' because I am a woman, and they assume I cannot drink it straight" is how one women describes her whisky experience.

The new trends also ensures that you must not patronise women with 'softer' whiskies.

Women find the mighty Laphroaig smooth and a preferred poured over almost anything else, unless it is another aged Ardbeg. Not the soft whiskies for them unless it is out of choice or brand.

Sushma Puri, ex MD of Elite Models India, had remarked to me a few years back, "interestingly it never occurred to me that whisky is a man's drink. I have been enjoying single malts for a long time and find myself hunting for newer impressions and variants while travelling abroad."

Priya Madan, an avid entrepreneur, finds the mighty Laphroaig smooth and her preferred whisky over almost anything else, unless it is another aged Laphroaig. Not the soft Lowlanders for her.

I have been part of discussions, where women are planning Scotch whisky trails, distillery tours and talking about a new Japanese whisky discovered at a friend's house. Preeti, a fitness expert, only drinks single malts and is keen to visit Talisker distillery next time she is in the UK.

According to a Alpana Ajmera, a leading florist from Mumbai, "I've never drunk whisky before. In fact I actively avoided it. Then, I was given the gift of a Glenfiddich 18 Years Old for my birthday and I went for it. To my surprise it was a comfortable drink which I enjoyed and watched it grow on me and, well I'm now a convert. Someday I want to fill my own cask at Glenfiddich."

Interestingly women whisky drinkers also like to go for the big taste and are not climbing the taste ladder as has been the practice traditionally. It's not necessary to move from blends to soft Speysiders to big Islays. A good Glenfiddich or a Ardmore or a Jim Beam is a matter of choice and taste, not rules. Women are not new to whisky and do not need whisky to be easy drinking (i.e. Lowland) or served smothered in juices, fruits etc. "There is no defined way to enjoy a glass of single malt scotch, it is a personal preference. I personally love the peaty single malts with delicate complexity and balance of the sweet, savoury and peaty notes that are ever present in good Islay whiskies" says Meenu Handa, Head of Communications for a leading MNC in India. One of the finest areas of this gradual shift is that women are enjoying whisky more and more.

In my opinion a woman drinking single malt looks far classier than a woman drinking a sparkly pink cocktail with a straw in it.

Food pairings

Pan roasted Chilean sea bass with braised tomatoes and cilantro. Artichoke, sun dried tomato and pine nut croquettes with burnt onion purée.
Pair with The Glenlivet 15 Years Old.

Ravioli of smoked turkey and porcini with parmesan cream. Mille feuille of lamb and aubergine with goat cheese and rosemary.
Pair with Lagavulin 12 Years Old.

Jujhe Limu A chicken breast, cured in yogurt and lemon marinade, cooked on dum with an assortment of vegetables behind a purdah of puff pastry.
Pair with Royal Salute 21 Years Old Blended Scotch.