Sunday, March 30, 2008

Heart of the run
(Of grain whiskeys and Royal Bhutan)

The desired spirit is called ‘the middle cut’ or ‘the heart of the run’ and starts to come through as the alcohol content reaches about 75 percent. The heart of the run is the only part of the distillate that will become whiskey. 20 minutes into the second and final distillation the heart of the run start to come through. This so called ‘heart’ is the only part of the distillation that is used. The process of collecting the ‘heart’ takes 3-4 hours. The alcohol concentration of the heart is between 60 and 72 percent, and has an average concentration of 68 percent. This raw spirit is cut with water to 63.5 percent, which is considered to be the optimal strength for the spirit to interact with the casks during storage.

One has sampled some sacrosanct single malts( few and far between), some just about palatable single malts, some hallowed big names of blended scotch, some overhyped BAD blends, some surprisingly good underrated ones, and more than anything else, stuff that barely escape being in the hooch category, in one's not so illustrious career.
G-E-L-E-P-H-U. Name rings a bell? Nope?
This blogger has written about the distillery there and it's products. Much as the prime offering is a well known brand in certain circles (picture right), this correspondent found CSJ an average whiskey with unusually strong flavors and a fast-acting blend. This is the best they have on the shelves, priced at about $10 a 750ml. However, the whiskey I really want to discuss here is the ambitiously named "Bhutan Highland". The label honestly says it's a grain whiskey, as opposed to "blended scotch malts", whatever that means in these parts. With a curious looking yellow ribbon tied around the neck of the bottle. Dirt cheap, just above $4 for the same quantity. For that kind of pricing alone, my friend and I had at first taken it for modified tharra. Grave mistake it would have been.
Don't know if it was the cute ribbon, the honest proclamation, or the lighter color of the fluid that made me buy a bottle. For the next three evenings, my friend had I, over diverse terrain, in extremities of weather, under various states of physical exhaustion, have only happy happy memories of the whiskey to recount. Ah, the clarity it struck you with! The energetic delivery! The effortless follow through! I rate it none inferior to Ishant Sharma.
Fooling apart, what I seriously felt about the spirit is :

a) That it's obviously a single grain whiskey, technically, from only one distillery and all, much in the mold of the eminent Cameron Brig or, Invergordon, none of which I've had the pleasure of tasting.
b) The gelephu people, who had a quality whiskey on their hands( blame it on the fabled highland spring waters or the quality of Bhutanese hop) didn't go the fancy maturation in wooden cask route, which explains the absurdly low price. It was bottled fresh off the distillery, like many other whiskey makers in Asia do.
On the third evening, when we finally and truly realized the enormous potential of the whiskey (by which time the bot was empty too) we wanted to travel to Gelephu, kiss the hand of the brewer and congratulate him, and urge him to barrel his fine produce for at least six years before bottling. Then he could give m/s Whyte & Mackay a run for their money.


narendra shenoy said...

I've been meaning to visit Bhutan for a while now but my noble intentions have been consistently vetoed by the missus on the grounds that there are no shopping malls in Thimpu. Or outlet stores. But now, I shall lobby with renewed vigor. One has to verify in person if you have been speaking the truth in re the Bhutan Highland

Partho said...

Don't build up your expectations too high, because, like I said, we had only bought one bottle, very hesitantly. Whatever I opine now is on the basis of consuming that one bottle. Who knows, it might've been due to the weather, being full of good food at all hours or even the excellent movement of our innards during that period, that added to the experience. To be certain though, I've been trying to source a case of the stuff. As they say, watch this space.
Oh, and maybe there is no organized retail in Thimpu, but it should not be a deterrent for the missus. It's the sort of place where the wife falls for an exotic priceless trinket at a hole-in-the-wall inside a side-alley, and the hubbie gets butchered. Actually we didn't really visit Thimpu, we only sauntered in and out of Bhutan at Phuntsholing in the course of our Dooars tour.