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Secret Traveller by Jamal Shaikh: A Scottish surprise

As I landed in Aberdeen, a tiny little rich town in the North West of Scotland, I was reminded of a friend who did the whisky trail just after his decade-long marriage broke up. He wanted to drown his sorrows and couldn’t think of a better way to do so.

I re-evaluated my own decision to visit. I was neither a whisky lover, nor did I have sorrows to drown. Would I even find cold, sometimes brusque Scotland appealing?

The first bit of respite came from the 81-year-old driver who picked me up. “Aberdeen was well-off because of the oil… but shush… don’t tell anyone it’s drying up,” I was told. “If there were to be a poll today, Scotland would want to be a free country.”

My thoughts were elsewhere. Why should a man past 80 need to drive limos to make ends meet? Are we in the third world part of the planet in a better state of being?

As it turned out, this four-day-long whisky trail would throw up more rhetoric than any real answers.

The difference between a Full Scottish and a Full English breakfast

Castle rock

Our one-hour drive took us to Rothes Glen estate in what seemed to be the central part of Scotland. We were positioned close to the Cardhu distillery, which would give us our first insight into whisky making. But Glen Roth was tasked with giving us our first taste of Scotland.

A winding driveway led us to the centuries-old castle, which has been converted into a boutique 20-room property that’s often used for private weddings and events. I thought of how a 200-room hotel was not enough for an Indian wedding, but held back comment.

The castle/hotel was quaint, and as overly done up as the English homes of that era. The gardens had statues in the centre of roundabouts, and the walls inside were adorned with wins from hunting expeditions. There was a salon to retire in, a tea room, an area with a large pool table, and—given that it was frequented by mainly whisky lovers—a cellar with a show bar of sorts.

Later that evening, one of Walker and Co’s ambassadors would treat us to the Whisky Sour in that room, and also show us how best to make it.

My high came from what the hotel manager, a sturdy young Scotswoman from around the area, told me as she carried one of my bags up three flights of stairs and placed it in my room. “No need to lock your room when you go out. Everyone here knows one another!”

Distillery heaven

The Cardhu distillery is one of Johnnie Walker’s most important ones, and also one of the oldest. It has a well-stocked visitor’s centre that also plays the role of a reception as guests pour in from the chill outside.

The tour consisted of a walk through the various buildings, taking us through the process of making whisky: where the raw material comes from, how it is processed and how the final product is made.

Founded as an illicit distillery in 1811 and licensed in 1824, Cardhu is the first distillery to be officially pioneered by a woman and happens to be one of the Four Corner of Scotland Distilleries of Johnnie Walker

Cask-making, we learned, is a skill. Hundreds of men compete for the job, few get it. A show window was strategically set-up overlooking the area where whisky casks are made. And the energy and speed with which the super fit, super lucky young men who got the job made their casks was as electrifying as it was impressive.

The trick is to bind together slabs of wood in a way that the liquid does not leak out. The oak for the casks, we were surprised to learn, comes from the United States of America. And after a cask is ready or repaired, an inspector must check it before the maker gets paid.

The damp cellars had their own spooky vibe and rich little stories to tell. But hey, when are we getting a drink, a co-participant wondered. Her request was granted just a few minutes later.

Casks full of whisky are stored here

Back at the reception, we were made to sit around a large table with three shots poured out for each person in the group. “Taste and tell me which whisky this is,” we were told. Wine snobs may please rejoice; even the most hardcore whisky lovers got at least one of the three wrong!

Library no bar

The next morning took us to an oddly named place—The Whisky Library, a brightly lit room with floor to ceiling shelves containing the rarest bottles one can find. But it wasn’t the bottles in this room that were opened. Instead, our hosts opened up about the branding, packaging and marketing of the golden liquid that J Walker had launched out of a grocery store in the 19th century.

It was one of Johnnie Walker’s sons who packaged the whisky and gave it its name, decades after his father had invented it. The different blends had different coloured labels, and the bottle was square so that more bottles could fit into a transport container. Also, long before typography went digital, the words ‘Johnnie Walker’ were written using a forward slant to ensure the letters could be bigger and easier to read. Did you know that till the 1990s, “the walking man” was walking backwards? He only walked ahead from the 1990s on. The trivia in here is the stuff legends are made of.

Dishoom, a popular Indian restaurant in Edinburgh

Dance, drama, drink

The high point of my trip turned out to be where it culminated: in Edinburgh. In the centre of the city, there has now emerged a Mecca for whisky lovers: The Johnnie Walker Experience Centre.

At the welcome desk at the entrance, an iPad station had me fill out a taste form. Do you like you like sweet, bitter, or spicy? On this basis, I was given a colour code and the drinks offered to me were based on this code.

My colour was yellow: I liked it sweet, apparently. So, Johnnie Walker’s Gold Reserve needed to be my drink of choice.

Floor 2 treated us to a Broadway-style dance and drama performance. It told the story of a grocer named J Walker, whose hard life led him to create whisky blends that his sons would go on to package under his name and export to the world.

The centre is like a museum that has OD-ed on technology, and ensures you have a drink in your hand wherever you go. I discovered two things that day: one, that whisky was not a brooding old man’s drink; it had the potential to be the centrepiece of delicious cocktails that could excite the young and old, alike.

A salted toffee pina colada made with whisky

And two: that I actually enjoyed highballs. Despite being a teetotaller, I had more of these delicious whisky cocktails served in a tall glass than I had bargained for. My friend may have come to Scotland to drown his sorrows. I discovered whisky as a drink to lift my spirits.


Even as Delhi airport continues to create news, #SecretTraveller would like to shift the attention to Vistara.

In the week after it was announced that the Tata Group—the new owners of Air India as well—would merge Vistara with India’s flagship carrier, the mood seemed gloomy. I flew the airline three times in the week starting November 29, and the cabin crew seemed distracted, the ground handling had things mixed up, and the dedicated Gold Helpline for frequent flyers had me on hold for 16 minutes. (It otherwise took less than 60 seconds to get through to an executive.)

Then again, I did receive a call back a few hours later. And, at the end of the call, when I forgot to end it as I was using AirPods in a different room from where the phone was, the executive waited patiently but refused to hang up until the guest had.

Now that’s the kind of finesse I hope the company doesn’t dissolve ever!

From HT Brunch, December 31, 2022

Follow @JamalShaikh on Instagram and Twitter

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