It’s quite a travesty that World Whisky Day should fall amid an enforced lockdown where India’s moral queasiness with alcohol means that we are one of the few countries where one can’t even legally drown one’s sorrows to process the pandemic which is making us reconsider everything we have considered normal.
The long serpentine lines when liquor shops were reopened showed that the flesh was unquestionably willing for the spirits.
The moral weight of consuming alcohol in India even prompted PB Mehta to take a break from lamenting that the current dispensation had stolen India’s soul, to wonder if alcohol was also responsible for the aforementioned theft.
World Whisky Day
Since one can’t get a drink on World Whisky Day – commemorated on the third Saturday of May every year – let us take a walk down memory lane. I’ve always loved whisky. My first memory of whisky was watching a group of adults consuming it and wondering about their strange behaviour post the drink.
And when I was about 8 or 9, I surreptitiously stole sips from Baba’s Black Label bottle which he had bought from the duty free stores while returning from Singapore. Back then, Johnnie Walker Black Label was the most tangible indicator of immigrant success, along with the ubiquitous Ferrero Rocher and Toblerone.
I would steal swigs when no one was looking, mixing in water to maintain the quantity. Even as I was getting to know Johnnie, my mother soon caught on and the old adage that blood is thicker than water was tested. Luckily, none of mine flowed after Baba discovered my misdemeanours.
As I grew up, I had my own share of trysts with whiskies of all ilks, including the desi ones made from molasses which should, in fact, be classified as rum.
Each whisky – as those annoying surrogate ads with testosterone-charged dudes remind us – was a celebration of a moment.
Whiskies have always been there as a close ally, whether it was to help us forget the existential woes of preparing for IITs, so one could become a faceless drone for an MNC and sell sugar water, or to sip at an office party, marvelling at the fact that one had hoodwinked so many adults that one was a gainfully employed adult.
Every whisky has a different story, forming what the fictional adman Don Draper called an emotional bond with the product. It wasn’t really a drink but a time machine taking us back to that particular time.
Imperial Blue or Officer’s Choice reminds me of the endless nights in Kota, where one often guzzled on street corners or on the cyber-café roofs after an all-night Counter Strike session as one wondered why one had agreed to come to this hellhole to become something one never wanted to become.
There were swigs of Blender’s Pride at the Open Bar in Manipal, a university town which has come the closest to replicating Uncle Sam’s frat scene. The Open Bar is exactly how it sounds, a liquor shop in the middle of the road selling alcohol even as students from various colleges in the university town ambled by. The place was frequented by everyone from super-seniors who had been there for a decade and become part of the furniture, to newly-minted MBBS graduates who felt that no one would believe they were doctors unless they wore their lab coats to every place in town.
There were chugs of Royal Stag in Downtown – popularly known as Dee Tee – which was known for its inclination to play System of a Down and had a propensity to serve chicken lollipops alongside schezwan sauce.
There were slugs at 8 PM with uncles at parties, long before the time became a trigger for the nation’s fear psychosis associated with the PM introducing us to some new harsh reality.
Then there’s the DSP Black, which a US-returned friend swears tastes like a Jack and Coke, even though one explains that there’s a special rung in hell for people who mix coke with whisky.
As one moved up in life, the quality of whisky would improve -- which was inversely proportional to the severity of hangovers -- with old favourites and new.
So, what do I drink now?
Black Label returned as a celebratory drink, when one got one’s first paycheck and the paterfamilias was thrilled that his spawn would no longer be a burden and was now a contributing member of society, paying taxes and everything.
Double Black, from the Johnnie Walker Label, also found a place on the shelf thanks to its smokier aftertaste, a hint of nostalgia and innocence in a bottle.
There was the Jim Beam or Jack Daniels-based Old Fashioned, a Don Draper favourite even though one’s search for the perfect Old Fashioned in India remains as futile a Sisyphean struggle as finding a Prime Minister who actually delivers.
As an interesting aside, it’s the lack of quality German bitters that makes one bitter about the desi iterations of the Old Fashioned.
There would also be the usual whiskies one drank every other week, like the Jameson which will always be a reminder of a former boss’ birthday party, celebrated with the best boy in the world.
One would be failing in one’s duties if one didn’t mention Ballantine’s, perhaps the most reasonably-priced imported Scotch, which is always present in the Chili’s menu and goes perfectly with their impression of the boneless Buffalo wings.
There is also the Jack Daniels Fire, an utterly unique whisky with hints of cinnamon and toast, like Christmas in a bottle.
The middle-to-top tier blended IMFLs like 100 Pipers and Black & White are still favourites, kept for a swig after a long day at work.
For special occasions there are the single malts like Macallans, Glenlivets and Glenfiddiches. And this stroll down the memory lane is a reminder that one hasn’t had a drop since March 24, more than 50 days of sobriety.
While the lack of withdrawal symptoms suggests that one is not an alcoholic, it has been a long time. Only when something is gone do we truly realise it’s value, like our local liquor store or the unending traffic jams one is subjected to in Bombay.
But humanity has shrugged off bigger hurdles and we live in hope that one day this lockdown will be lifted, and we can again imbibe what Benjamin Franklin called liquid sunshine.
So, I raise a glass – metaphorical not literal – to all the whiskies I’ve loved and hated. I will see you soon old friends. We will meet on the rocks. We will be there with soda. We will even add a splash of water. We will even stop frowning when someone mixes you with coke.
After all, it is the hope that makes us human. One day this lockdown will be lifted, or alcohol will be delivered home and there will be no slip – not between the cup and lip. After all, this is whisky, not a government subsidy. One day we shall meet again old friend.
Read: Other Nonsensical Nemo columns
Ever since he was a kid, Nirmalya Dutta always dreamt he would be the new Bob Dylan. Sadly, he soon realised, he was only a freewheeling brat asking his dad for freebies.
The author is the Web Editor the Free Press Journal and tweets at @nirmalyadutta23.
The views expressed are his own.