I must confess that I am not a very virtuous person: I do drink. Before you take me amiss, let add post haste: I am not a case that merits a reference to the AA. Not by a long shot!
I do enjoy my tipple – in the right ambience and company. Which means there has to be plenty of ice, conviviality, soda, short eats and water. The crystal glasses, the sparkling decanter, the gleaming cutlery, the delicate crockery, the starched napkins – all contribute to the ambience. The company of someone who spreads good cheer and can share a laugh is imperative. And the ‘poison’ has to be of my liking. It is quite possible that if the above ingredients are not present, I may even decline a drink. I can possibly do without soda or snacks, but not the others.
One thing I never miss is to read the label on the bottle. It is a very interesting pastime, for it tells you the origin of the name, the history of the distillers etc. Believe me, some of the names are so romantic and some have history behind them.
Take the popular ‘Royal Salute’ whisky for instance. This leading prestige Scotch whisky was launched on the 2nd June in 1953 by Chivas Brothers in tribute to Queen Elizabeth II on the day of her coronation. The bottle was decorated with her royal crest and hence the name.
The ubiquitous brand most Indians are familiar with would be Vat 69, thanks to the Hindi films where villains like Pran and Prem Nath would be seen pouring a drink off a green bottle. How the brand got its name is interesting. In 1882, William Sanderson prepared one hundred casks of blended whisky and hired a panel of experts to taste them. The batch from the vat with number 69 was judged to be the best tasting one and thus the famous blend got its name.
Recall ‘Black & White’, featuring two terriers, one black and the other white, on the label. Curiously, the labels on the bottles did not carry these pictures for a long time. In fact, the whisky was not even called Black & White! When James Buchanan produced Buchanan Blend, it came to be relied upon for its consistency and quality and he won a contract to supply the House of Commons with whisky. Thus it was called Buchanan's House of Commons Scotch Whisky. It was marketed in a black bottle with a white label and customers simply started referring to Buchanan Blend as ‘that black and white whisky’. Buchanan - an animal lover – then added the black Scottish terrier and the West Highland white terrier to the label and it was adopted as the brand's motif.
Now, to ‘Black Dog’. I was surprised that this name has nothing to do with man’s best friend. Walter Millard, a Scot in British India, traveled to Scotland in 1833 in search of an impeccable whisky. His search ended in blend created by James Mackinlay, if the second generation of the Leith Scotch whisky blending family. Being a keen angler himself, Millard named the whisky Black Dog in honour of his favourite salmon fishing fly, used in the Spey and Tay rivers of Scotland.
A wife may nurse a grouse against a man for drinking, but that has nothing to do with the name ‘Famous Grouse’. Mathew Gloag who created the blend in 1897, named it after the Red Grouse, Scotland's national game bird.
‘Old Smuggler’ is exactly what the name says. It is a blended Scotch Whisky with a history that goes back to 1835. Smugglers risked their life and honour to share its taste with their loyal customers and hence the brand name.
The name '100 Pipers' was taken from the one hundred pipers who proceeded Scotland's legendary hero, Bonnie Prince Charlie, into battle. It is said that the pipers used to entertain the generals relaxing with the bubbly in the dusk after the day’s battle. The producers assure you that after a couple of drinks, you can hear the distant strains of the pipers’ music! This is something I cannot testify, as I have never been able to reach that level of inebriation!
Then we have the ‘Cutty Sark’ whose main office in Glasgow is less than ten miles from the birthplace of the famous River Clyde-built clipper ship of the same name. Interestingly, the word means ‘short underskirt’ and is prominently mentioned in the famous poem ‘Tam o’Shanter’ by Robert Burns.
The glen series of whiskies – Glenlivet, Glenfraclas, Glen Elgin, Glenrothes, … – are mostly named after the valleys where the distilleries are located. Glenfiddich, which comes in the characteristic triangular bottles, is Gaelic for Valley of the Deer and Glenmorangie is believed to be derived from either gleann mor na sith – Valley of tranquillity or gleann mór innse – Valley of Big Meadows.
Laphroaig, Lagavulin, etc are areas in the Isle of Islay. The former is an area of land at the head of Loch Laphroaig on the south coast. The meaning is unknown but a commonly suggested derivation implies the elements ‘lag’ (Gaelic: hollow), ‘breid’ (Norse: broad) and ‘vik’ (Norse: bay), implying an original Gaelic form something like ‘Lag Bhròdhaig’ (the hollow of Broadbay). The name may be related to a placename on the east coast of Islay, ‘Pròaig’, again suggested as meaning broad bay’.
And there are oddities too - Dimple is known by that name everywhere except in the USA where it is called Pinch. There's something special called - what else? 'Something Special'! One of Seagram's most successful retail blends in the 1970's, one does not get to see much of it lately.
My son reminds me of another brand: With that name for a whiskey, even if you are a teetotaller, and when asked, 'What'll you have?' politely decine the offer for a tipple, a drink can be thrust upon you because you said, 'Kuchh nai'! Trust a Sardarji to come up with such a brilliant idea! If you can't believe this, have a look at the label and see the name of the distillery: Five Rivers International Limited. Those who still remember their school geography will know that 'Punjab' means 'Five Rivers'.
One of the first advertisement slogans I recall having seen was ‘Don’t be vague, Say Haig’. And the most striking visual I can recall in an ad was the one where a man is entertaining his boss. It’s very subtle: he pours a large drink for himself, but when it comes to the boss, he is a bit miserly, large enough, but not as large. The dilemma of the man is writ on his face: pour a large and keep the boss happy, but that leaves hi with a depleted stock of the amber liquid!
How can I conclude this piece without referring to the etymology of the word ‘whisky’? Americans spell the word as ‘whiskey’. The word comes from usquebaugh, which English borrowed from Gaelic (Irish uisce beatha and Scottish uisge beatha), meaning ‘water of life’, the same thing as the Latin aqua vītae which had been applied to distilled drinks since early 14th century. Readers are requested not to confuse this with Shivambu, the beverage India’s one-time Prime Minister Morarji Desai advocated as the water of life for its medicinal value.
There’s a sher I cannot resist the temptation to quote, with apologies to those who do not understand Hindi:
Mein peeta nahin…
Mein peeta nahin hun…
Jab bhi mein peeta
Peeta hun whisky
Kabhi uski, kabhi iski.
I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me. - Winston Churchill