Why do cherished -- and affordable -- Indian whisky brands like Peter Scot, Solan Number One, and now McDowell's Single Malt keep disappearing? Subir Roy mourns the loss of good taste.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Not so long ago one evening, my host and friend looked acutely embarrassed when in response to his query as to what I would like to drink, I said clearly and with confidence, "Single Malt". Neither he nor I could afford single malt Scotch whisky. So I immediately proceeded to give him a lecture on the difference between the generic single malt Scotch whisky and McDowell's Indian whisky brand "Single Malt".
Yes, the two were not the same. But in taste and flavour the Indian brand came close to the Scotch originals, thus winning ardent fans like me who could find in it a golden mean between price and quality. Little wonder that brand protectors of single malt Scotch, on India visits, were highly dismissive of the "me too" brand by observing caustically that it was "neither single nor malt". But that didn't dissuade those like me who knew good flavour and taste as soon as the first drops hit the palate.
So life went on, very pleasurably to my mind, until one evening my guest at home said he would forego the Teacher's I was offering and go for Single Malt just in case I had some of it. My sense of good feeling doubled at the realisation that here was another soul who paid obeisance to quality without looking at the price tag or the label.
But my good feeling was short-lived when my guest revealed that he was asking for the specific brand because it was no longer available in Kolkata. That can't be, I protested and promised to get him a bottle the next time I got one for myself. Then began an exercise in futility. The brand was not to be had anywhere, not even at the large outlet of the leading retail chain.
One more wicket down, I thought.
Not so long ago it was plain and simple undiluted Blue Riband gin that went off the shelves, with only ghastly flavoured varieties being available. It is only on a visit to Bengaluru that I was able to pick up a bottle of plain, no-nonsense original. Now I am keeping my fingers crossed that on my next visit to the home of good drinking, I will be able to pick up a couple of bottles of Single Malt. But you never know. It is already gone from Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata and the manufacturers may decide to end even the token presence in Bengaluru.
As if this was not enough, last week I was in for another shock.
In my search for a whisky brand which could lay some rudimentary claim to distinctive flavour, I had gone back to Peter Scot, which only old-timers will be familiar with and appreciate. But a few days ago, that brand was also gone from city stores, unless someone had remnants of an old order.
I am sure for Peter Scot it is only a temporary disruption in supplies but it is so off-putting, particularly as you get older, to suddenly find the even rhythm of life disturbed.
On disappearing affordable whisky brands, the greatest loss has of course been that of Solan Number One. It may still be available in odd little corners of the country but the whisky I loved decades ago (and was it affordable!) has disappeared from mainstream channels. It is still there on the price list of the state distributor in Delhi but difficult for you to lay your hands on. To me its woody taste is unforgettable.
But the good life for me came back in a big way as a result of a Solan connection that my family has lately developed. When they came to know that I was some kind of a number one fan of Solan Number One they, with utmost thoughtfulness, presented me with a bottle whose label said it was a premium variant of the delightful old brand. It was heartening to know that thoughtfulness, courtesy and love of good things (doesn't matter if it costs a penny or a bomb) still live.
Why do cherished brands keep disappearing in this way?
First, it often takes some doing for a brand to enter a state by getting past the hurdle of its excise tax bureaucracy. But having got in, there have to be minimum sales volumes to justify remaining there. The unfortunate reality is that most Indians drink simply to get a kick. When someone wants to go up the social ladder after having made a bit of a pile, he goes in for labels such as Scotch without having a sense of the flavour that goes with the name. In the process, affordable Indian brands, whose appeal is in their flavour, tend to fall by the wayside.
I have seen with depressing familiarity how new brands of beer have morphed. Often a brand enters with a light flavour and low alcohol content but after some time the flavour is gone and all that you have left is one more brand of strong beer which will give you a kick and little else.
It seems a great pity that Single Malt is the latest to meet its demise at this altar of indifference to intrinsic good value.