Whisky critic Jim Murray was in New Delhi recently to conduct a blind tasting session. We signed up to understand the nuances of his legendary tasting process, find out his all-time favourite drink, and unravel his India connection. By Sumeet Keswani
“There’s an old Scottish
saying,” intones the man with deep blue eyes in a mocking Scottish accent, “that says there’s no such thing as a bad whisky
.” He continues then in his own English accent and pointed humour. “Well, guess what? There is! There are hundreds of them, and the whole point of writing this book is to stop you from buying them.” Jim Murray holds up his annually updated Whisky Bible
as a modern testament to the spirit he most reveres.
I’m in a blind whisky tasting session in New Delhi with the legendary writer, who reminds us repeatedly that it’s a “tasting”, not a “drinking” session. And hence, his only rule for the 90-minute masterclass: “Don’t swallow.” We follow an abridged six-step version of the 18-step Murray method while tasting seven un-labelled whiskeys. The tasting is blind because Murray wants to destroy any preconceived notions his audience may have. One of the glasses takes everyone by surprise. What’s speculated to be a single malt Scotch by most turns out to be the very Indian Paul John. Murray beams on the stage, a grin of vindication spreading ear to ear.
In a candid chat later, Murray tells me that he’d love to see Indians
accepting the fact that they have world-class whiskies in their home. “Ten years ago, I placed Amrut
at No. 3 in the Whisky Bible. They produce a whisky that a number of Scotland distilleries pray for,” says the widely respected critic.
Murray is a repeat visitor to India, and his most memorable experience here was in 1995 at the hill station of Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh
. There, he visited an old distillery based in a repurposed British building. The distillery’s manager lamented to Murray that their whisky was no longer as good as it used to be three decades ago. High demand had altered processes and diluted the quality of the spirit
. Murray covertly placed two glasses of the Indian spirit in front of a blazing fireplace while they ate a traditional English roast cooked in honour of the critic. After the meal, Murray handed the manager the glass, now warm. “After tasting the whisky, this man actually started crying, saying, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done, but this is our old whisky!’” Murray still beams as he recalls the 24-year-old incident. The heat of the fire
had burned off the excess oils, cleaned the spirit and gave the manager his old whisky back with all its intensity. This ‘trick’ is an essential step in the Murray Method that he makes us practise. Holding the tulip glass against our chests with a hand covering the top brings the whisky to room temperature
, excites its molecules and unravels its nuances. Even the nose of the drink becomes thrice as intense.
Murray wears many hats—whisky writer, birdwatcher, former cricket aspirant (“I once bowled at Dennis Amiss
alongside Bob Willis
in the nets!”)—but his favourite one is the genuine Panama hat, a brimmed straw hat from Ecuador that he wears at events. This is also why Ecuador
features high on his bucket list, along with a long-overdue revisit to Africa. The continent has given him some of his most memorable moments. “When I was 19, I hitchhiked through Africa
through the Sahara desert
down to Nigeria—in 1977-78,” recalls the 61-year-old, adding that he hasn’t gone back often enough. One of his brief revisits, however, was one of his most amusing too. A tasting event in South Africa
turned out to be at a popular strip joint in Johannesburg. “It was the only time I’ve done a tasting around a pole!” laughs Murray. “After the event, I queued up with buck naked women for the buffet.”
Having visited nearly 50 countries, Murray’s favourites are Uruguay, Australia
. The one thing common among all these is a wide variety of birds. In fact, birdwatching is how Murray starts many of his days when acting as a blending consultant anywhere in the world. “I start at first light and walk miles to see birds. By the time I come back to the lab, all my senses are alive.” Not all his senses enjoy the same privileges, though. When working, Murray eats tinned fish and boiled rice so that his taste buds are pristine and his food tastes of nothing. “As much as I love spicy Indian food, I don’t get to enjoy it often.” But he loathes the idea of pairing the cuisine with whisky. “Indian food
does not just sit there and say nothing. It makes a statement. It beats its chest. If such a busy fusion of spices is on your palate, how can you possibly judge the nuances that 17 years of ageing have brought into a whisky?” His solution: drink your dram before or after the meal, not with it.
The Whisky Bible rankings aside, what’s Murray’s all-time favourite drink? The critic is quick to name a sample of the Ardbeg
10-year-old (distilled in 1974, bottled in 1984) that he tasted in 1997 when he was consulting as a blender for Glenmorangie
, which had bought the Ardbeg distillery. In fact, that’s the one bottle he’d like to have if he were to be stranded on an island. He finds a poetic argument for the choice too—“Ardbeg was distilled on an island, that of Islay
in Scotland. So it would come full circle!”