Thursday, 5 December 2013

FORTUNE COOKIE: Scotch Whisky Industry Fights Not Quite An Angelic Thirst

This is my fortnightly Fortune Cookie column, which appeared in the December 5, 2013, edition of Mail Today. I have modified it slightly for the blog. Copyright: Mail Today Newspapers. Click on the link below and go to Page 21.

THE Angels' Share is an expression whisky insiders have laughed and agonised about forever, but few outside this charmed circle knew about it till left-wing UK filmmaker Ken Loach's gritty comedy by the same name got the coveted Jury Award at Cannes 2012.
Glenfiddich's vast barrel houses hold 125 million
litres of spirit at any given time, making them
contribute vast quantities to the angels' share
What is the angels' share if it is not just the title of an acclaimed film? In whisky brogue, it is the name given to the natural evaporation of the distilled spirit maturing in casks at 2 per cent a year. The subject made for a lively discussion over lunch with Ian Millar, Glenfiddich's Brand Ambassador and Distiller, whose idea of the good life is having a dram of his single malt with the kebabs and kormas of Dum Pukht. When seen in percentage terms, the angels' share may not look like much, but when you account for just Glenfiddich, a single malt that connoisseurs across the country know very well, having 125 million litres of whisky at various stages of maturation at any given time in its Leviathan barrel houses, the math will sink in.
Two per cent of 125 million litres is 2.5 million litres. Now, if you consider that each drop of Glenfiddich we drink spends a minimum of 12 years in barrels (though the 18-year-old is the one that sells more), we are talking about a loss of 30 million litres. In this day and age, when the supply of single malts has fallen far behind the spiralling demand, this is seriously bad news.
Millar reminded me that the duty on each 'litre of pure alcohol' back home in Scotland is 20 pounds, so the angels' share does hurt badly. And he belongs to the school of thought rooted in the belief that of the two ways of making profits -- "sell your product for more or make it for less" -- the second makes everyone happy. One of the many ways he can make Glenfiddich for less is by cutting down the angels' share.
The stage, it seems, is set for a historic clash between humans and the thirsty angels hovering over Scotland's distilleries. Interestingly, in the course of my research I learnt that in hotter parts, such as India, this loss could go up to 12 per cent a year -- angels, like politicians and babus, are greedier on our side of the world!
It is precisely to cut these losses that the makers of Amrut, India's first single malt whisky, have limited the maturation period to a maximum of four years -- those are enough to cause a loss of about 50 per cent of the whisky in its barrels. The classic story from the Amrut stable is that of the single malt named Greedy Angels, which was released in April 2013. At the end of the eight years that the whisky spent in two Bourbon casks, the evaporative loss was so high that Amrut was left with less than a quarter of the 360 litres of spirit maturing in the barrels.
Seeing my mental calculator working overtime, Millar said that in the first two years, the spirit is volatile and eats into the wood of the barrels -- the process gives the final product its colour and tannins. What is lost in this period is crude spirit and Millar is "happy to lose what we lose". After four or five years, the annual loss becomes less than 2 per cent. The Scotch whisky industry is working hard to contain it. Diageo, the makers of Johnnie Walker, started packing casks in cling film, but it didn't help. The only solution, says Millar, is to get coopers to play their part in reducing the losses by tightening the casks and plugging physical holes. People like Millar have to keep wracking their heads to make the world a headier place both for their employers and for the growing tribe of single malt lovers.

IN A champagne market dominated by the big boys (notably, Moet & Hennessy with Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot and Pernod Ricard with the F1 favourite, G.H. Mumm), it is heartening to find an old-worldly French gentleman named Jean-Jacques Cattier speak excitedly about the Indian foray of his family's champagne house. The Cattier family has been producing grapes in its premier cru vineyards for champagne houses since 1763, but it was Jean-Jacques's great-grandfather who started making his own bubbly in 1918.
Since then, the champagne has been quietly going places, from being the house pour of the Ritz London to finding a place on the first-class menu of British Airways. To earn worldwide fame, though, it had to wait for Jay-Z, who had just dumped Cristal after the presticgious champagne's French CEO made racist comments on hip-hop artistes, to be seen with Cattier's Armand de Brignac (Ace of Spades), packaged in a distinctive gold bottle with pewter, in his video for the 2006 song, 'Show Me What You Got'.
From then on, Cattier has been the favourite of NBA hoopsters and was most recently the official bubbly of the UEFA Cup 2012, but the gentle and soft-spoken Jean-Jacques Cattier avoids showbiz talk and speaks instead of Clos du Valin, a 2.2-hectare parcel of land that produces a single-vineyard champagne, a rare occurrence in the world of bubbles, or about the Vintage 2005 champagne, now available in Delhi and Bangalore hotels, which has a third each of the classical champagne grapes -- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier -- and is described as "generous and full-bodied".
I asked Jean-Jacques about the trend that defines champagne consumption in our time. He said it was pairing champagne and cheese. A French author has just written an entire tome on this exciting new subject. The thought struck a responsive chord because I have maintained against odds that wine and cheese are not the classic match (in fact, red wine and blue cheeses are mortal enemies!). Being more acidic, champagne definitely open our taste buds to the glories of cheese. The next time you plan a wine and cheese evening, have champagne instead.

AS CHEF de cave (cellar master) of Dom Perignon, the much-revered champagne named after the monk who's believed to have invented bubbly by accident, medical doctor-turned-oenologist Richard Geoffroy must have a good reason to give a vintage tag to a particular year. Especially if the rare honour is being awarded for the third year in a row. A vintage year for a champagne signifies a special year with perfect growing conditions -- in the case of Dom Perignon, it has happened just 40 times since 1921. It's different for a still wine, whose vintage merely indicates the year of harvest of the grapes that have gone into making it.
Launched late last month in the city with a series of exceptional champagne-paired dinners crafted by the chef with the stick-up hairdo, Mickey Boite, at Le Cirque, Vintage 2004 stands out for the way it peels off the champagne's austere personality, delicately balancing  fruit and acid to leave a sweetish aftertaste. It's a bubbly you'd expect from a moderate vintage marked by a gentle August, with no unseasonal rain or hail to spoil the party, and a couple of weeks of dry heat leading up to the September harvest. Geoffroy knows a vintage when he sees one -- after all, he has been the cellar master since 1990.

A CHERRY RED tuna sashimi may be pleasing to the eye, but it is most likely to have been treated with carbon monoxide to achieve the colour people associate with superior tuna. When Sri Lankan-Japanese chef-restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa, whose Nihonbashi restaurant is the first from his country to make it to Asia's Top 50, pointed this out to a lively gathering of restaurateurs and journalists at Indian Accent not long ago, he wasn't trying to repeat a well-known fact. He was pointing instead to the challenges that chefs like him face daily. People expect their tuna sashimi to look cherry red, so they question the freshness of the fish served by Munidasa -- after all, it looks just as it is supposed to, bright but not garish red. Cherry red sashimi is an absolute no-no also because the colour, wrongly associated with freshness, is used to mask stale fish.