Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The "Spirit" of India

India’s last battle against British imperialism will be fought in the bars of Europe. At least, that’s what Vijay Mallya, champion of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), claims. The King of Good Times recently informed the Scotch Whisky Association that: “India is not a British colony. This imposition of British imperialism is unacceptable.” He was referring to the SWA’s snooty attitude towards Indian whisky, which it claims is not whisky at all because it’s made from molasses, while real whisky is made from grain. That’s why Mallya has to market his hooch in the European Union as “Indian spirit”, a name hardly calculated to lure EU tipplers. Naturally, the Indian government, abetted by local IMFL manufacturers, has slapped sky-high taxes on Scotch, depriving the SWA of a huge market. No wonder, the stage

is set for a Royal Challenge.

I confess that my first reaction on hearing that Indian whisky was the same thing as rum was unabashed glee. During my drinking days (before all those peanuts I devoured with the booze took their toll on my liver), rum drinkers like me were constantly sneered at by IMFL whisky swillers, doubtless under the impression that the rotgut they were guzzling had foreign overtones. I remember sitting on the lawns of Kenilworth Hotel in Calcutta when Royal Challenge was introduced. A friend of mine who prided himself on being a connoisseur insisted that we order it. When it came, the expert rolled the liquid on his tongue and declared how different RC was from lesser, cheaper whiskies. That was before we noticed the waiter hovering in the background, looking extremely apologetic. Asked what he wanted, he screwed up his courage and blurted out: “Sahib, it’s my mistake. We had run out of RC, so I gave you Director’s Special instead.” We made sure the connoisseur never opened his mouth on the subject of liquor after that.But while we rum imbibers may loathe IMFL whisky, I have no love lost for scotch either. I remember a friend bringing a bottle of Glenmorangie from a trip abroad, which three of us polished off one night without any effect whatsoever, leaving us searching desperately for rum at 3 a.m. A similar thing happened to another colleague, who thought he was doing us a favour by buying a bottle of Peter Scot, which claimed that it was “blended with the choicest Scotch whisky”, instead of the military rum we used to have every evening. Missing that familiar burning sensation at the back of the throat and unable to get high, we cursed the do-gooder so badly he never dared to drink good whisky again.The really local liquor, on the other hand, was so much more exciting. Take Gold Star brandy, which cost Rs 18 a bottle in Darjeeling in the early 1980s. The beauty of this drink was that it had no quality control whatsoever. So one day, you could get high on a couple of pegs while another day, you could finish the entire bottle with nothing happening. Opening a bottle of Gold Star was, therefore, always an adventure, because you never knew what each evening would bring. Or take the stuff manufactured by Bhutan’s crowning glory, Gaylegphug Distilleries. I recall procuring a bottle of the stuff while posted in a village, in the hope that it would be a change from the local hooch, which you had to down at one gulp while holding your nose. Unfortunately, as soon as the bottle was opened, it reeked of varnish. The three of us then sat around for a long time with full glasses, each of us wanting the other guy to take the first sip, so that we could see what happened to him. The headline, “Hooch tragedy: City boys blinded by spurious liquor” swam before our eyes.So if you really want to resist Scottish imperialism, Indian Made Foreign Liquor is hardly the answer. Far better to drink really Indian brews — stuff like arrack, toddy, raxi, mahua, tongba, tharra, mosambi or pochai, to name a few. True, you may die in the attempt, but isn’t that what patriotism is all about?


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