Recently, Guwahati witnessed two renowned connoisseurs sharing the art of blending whiskies and food-pairing in an exclusive "Signature Tastings" session. Caroline Martin, Master Blender and Ranveer Brar, Master Chef joined hands to take the city (which possesses a live-wire spirit, and always ready to celebrate food, beverages and music) through a creative journey of blending whiskies, and fusing the blends with food. Rediscovering the art of celebration! The session was held at Novotel, Guwahati. It was a great learning and tasting platform.
Team Saturday Fare had a rendezvous with these two masters: Ranveer and Caroline. Ranveer, a Lucknavi, is a celebrity chef and restaurateur known for his immense knowledge of food (both, regional & global cuisines) and its history. Some of his television shows are "Breakfast Xpress", The Great Indian Rasoi", "Health Bhi Taste Bhi", "Ranveer's Café", among others. Proficient in food styling, Ranveer has also been one of the judges for season four of MasterChef India. This gentleman has a profound love for the Indian food, and has firm faith installed in the belief that travel makes a good chef better.
Caroline knows how to strike a balance between her personal and professional lives. With 29 years of experience in blending beverages, she talked about the distinct taste that one gets with smooth flavours of Signature whiskies and blends, and how fusion and creative bent of gastronomy led her follow the path of passion. She often steps into the role of Master Blender/ Whiskey Judge at the International Spirit Challenge & International Wine & Spirit Competition. The common thread that connects these two masters is their passion for food and beverage that led them choose the road less taken.
Here is an interaction with Caroline, to start with, which will unfold many leaves of her life that will keep you inspired.
How do you feel about being invited to the whiskey tasting session in Guwahati?
Well, this is the last of five Signature Tastings in India, which includes a tutored whiskey tasting, gastronomical creations and blend information sharing session. There have been five such events this week in the major cities throughout the country. It has been an exciting experience, meeting a lot of people and explaining about whiskey blending and my journey as a whiskey Master Blender. Their reactions to such creations have been really helpful for me. It's been a great opportunity to talk about the prestige Signature brand and the 2 whiskey variants - Rare and Premier - and how adaptable they are, for consumer serves.
I'm passionate about crafting amazing blended whiskies with unique flavours. It feels amazing for me as a Master Blender of Signature to come over to Guwahati (in fact, to different places of India) to share my passion with all of you.
Please explain us a bit about your role as a Master Blender.
Well, my role as a Master Blender is a very interesting one. Every day is different! The majority of my time, I am based in the Central Scotland, in a small village called Menstrie. I'm based in a lab facility, and I can nose new make and grain spirits as well as mature malt & grain scotch whiskies. I use these mature whiskies to craft new blended Scotch whiskies. Diageo owns malt and grain whiskey distilleries, which means we have access to a large amount of mature whiskey stock. I work as part of the Whiskey Specialist Team consisting of 12 blenders.
Along with the Signature brand, I am also a Master Blender for J&B Rare, and Bell's Original. On a day to day basis, I work with lots of Scotch Whiskies, blending them together, using different malt & grain whiskies which have been matured in different cask types for different lengths of time. So, I'm almost there like an artist creating a new painting.
Whiskies do not mature in the bottle, but in the cask, so the "age" of a whiskey is only the time between distillation & bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the whiskey, changing its chemical makeup and taste. In Scotland all whiskies have to mature in cask for a minimum of three years.
Part of my role is innovating, and creating different blended scotch whiskey prototypes, basically, the ones that consumers will really appreciate. The other part of my role is ensuring that the quality of existing Diageo whiskey brands is maintained e.g. Johnnie Walker whiskies.
We have read about you as a Master Blender, but we would like to know the other side of you that you're really good at or bad at. So, the question is other than this title, what are the other things that define you?
A woman, needlessly to say, has various dimensions to her own existence, and so do I. I like to do a hill walk in my spare time. The Ochil hills are close to my home and we frequently walk as a family there, on weekends. They are very picturesque. I love doing cake decoration too.
I'm happily married to Arthur and we have a 16-year-old son, Robbie, who is still at school, studying for exams. It is important to strive for a good work-life balance to get the best out of both. My family is very supportive of what I do & I appreciate that.
What did you actually want to become when you were a kid, an astronaut, master blender or something else?
Well, I never had anything as such in my mind when I was a kid. When I finished off my school, I kept two choices in my mind; either opting for Home Economics or the Dietitics. It was all about food that I was really interested in, since the beginning.
But I started off by graduating with an Arts Degree in Home Economics from Queen Margaret College, Edinburgh. Since then, it has been about blending different food ingredients. After joining Diageo's New Product Department in 1986, I crafted different drinks based on vodka, gin and other spirits and added different flavours, colours, thickeners, and more. At that time, I was developing ready-to-drink products like carbonated drinks in cans. We had a cream liqueur making plant as well. It was a good fun, and I enjoyed that sort of blending.
Through the new products, I really got focused on the sensory elements that make a product unique and different from each other. What are aromas, and how do they taste? How can you describe a product? And, many such questions awakened and tickled my keen acumen even for this aspect of work. All these were quite important to me. In the meantime, I qualified as a Clinical Aromatherapist, blending my own essential oils. My passion for blending has always been there, which kind of aligns well with the work I've done with the Signature brand.
I followed my passion and made a mark in the world to inspire other people, especially, women so they come forward and start chasing their passion, even if it's an astronaut, or whatever it may be. That zeal to chase your own call is very important, if fuels the dream; hence, one's life too. Every day is new and different for me.
Who has been your pillar of encouragement?
My family. The support of the family is really important, and because of them, I have come here to do something I have already been doing. Without their cooperation and understanding, it would have been very difficult to come so far in the journey. In fact, I would like to say that anyone who shows you the way, mentors and coaches you is very inspirational.
Caroline, we gathered that the biggest myth attached with whiskey, as you believe, is that it's a man's drink. What made you say so?
This field, particularly in the past, has been male dominated. However, I joined this work area, being a female. For me, any field of work should have the people with the right capability, whether it is a male or female. And, there should be an equal opportunity for all. In our team we have almost 50-50 balance of male & female blenders, which is great. There are many new to the business too.
Whiskey, as a drink, is more adaptable and approachable than some people are aware of. Chef Ranveer Brar has presented how to use different blends in preparing food. And, to those who say Whiskey is a Man's Drink, I absolutely disagree.
Okay, here’s a fun question to tickle your imagination. Tell us briefly, how would you, either in an abstract or factual manner, relate a woman's beauty with Whiskey?
Whiskies can be smooth and mellow, which conveys the wonderful persona of a woman. Apart from the abstract part, as the reality is, whiskey has been a part of my blending journey. This creative genre of work is my passion. Like I'm immensely passionate while crafting a whiskey, many women can also follow their call and accomplish their dreams.
Have you been able to try a few indigenous & home-bred alcohols of Assam or the Northeast India, as a whole?
This is my first visit to India, and my stay in Assam is in fact very short. Hence, unfortunately I haven't been able to try any of them. But next time when I'm here, I will make sure to try them out.
- Your favourite holiday destination: Alaska
- Your ideal way of celebrating success: Signature Premier or whiskey of sorts depending on the occasion
- Which type of Whiskey, you enjoy the most: My choice depends on my mood and occasion. It's difficult to name any particular Whiskey
- A snack you would like to have with Whiskey: I would like to do a food pairing of Dalwhinnie Single Malt whiskey and Chocolate baked pudding
- What you do in your leisure time? In my spare time, I love to do a bit of cake decorating and aromatherapy
If you are given a magical wand, what would be your three wishes?
- To stay healthy enough so I can continue my work
- To see more successful products (in this genre) be launched
- To be able to see the people in my team to be successful and recognized for their work.
Any upcoming projects in your basket?
Well, I would actually like to pursue some courses in perfumes as well. Perfumes have taken blending to a different direction and milestone. There are different projects related to Scotch, which are at different stages. I am also working on the Irish whiskeys as well, it is different. It is really smooth and light.
Any message for the women of the northeast or India?
If you are passionate about anything, then follow it. I'm one of the good examples of not halting for choosing an unconventional path. If you want to do it seriously, and then start it, after that the pursuit of happiness will no longer be a dream.
As smooth as a good whiskey, was the kind of conversation we had with Caroline, who feels that following passion is worth every bit of toil one has to undergo, as at the end it renders inexplicable happiness that is known only to the possessor of passion. Now, moving to our charming and dextrous celebrity chef and food-preneur (restaurateur), Ranveer Brar, the winner of the 'Indian of the Year' for Chef and TV Host of the year 2017 Award, whose love for food stems from an undying culinary craving in his Lucknavi DNA. When he was fairly young, he was mesmerized with and inspired by the local kebab vendors in his city. Well, he volunteered as an apprentice to one of them. He blends the flavor of travel diaries (and the derivative experiences that come through exploration of food and culture) with his cooking skills. Discover more about him through this exclusive interaction.
How do you feel about being invited to the Signature whiskey tasting session, here in Guwahati?
I feel great to be here. I think, as somebody who believes that food & beverage as an industry, (both food and beverage) needs to grow together, I feel privileged to be a part of this event, which talks about food and beverage at the same time, and how to bring them together. During the session, my role was to show how to use the whiskey blends in preparing food.
Through Signature Tastings, I tried to show how Signature can actually make your food taste better, either by consuming it alongside or by mixing it with the food. In a nutshell, it is all about how you can bring Signature into your kitchen.
Who has been the pillar of encouragement for your journey?
I wouldn't say that there has been just one "guru" who I have learnt from. There have been different people, at different times, who have stood as a pillar of support, in my journey.
What, according to you, is the biggest myth attached to alcohol?
I think one of the biggest myths attached with alcohol is the belief that when you pair alcohol with something, something goes wrong. People wonder if they can have whiskey with spice. Of course, anyone can have whiskey with spice. There is spiced rum that people drink. People also make spiced whiskeys and mulled wines. Spice and alcohol go well together. It’s just the proportion that matters. The biggest myth is around the pairing of food and beverage as many assume that something might go wrong.
If we have to actually try or experiment with some new sides of cooking or pairing of food, then we have to let go off certain inhibitions. Taste is very subjective. The only "don't" that comes to food pairing is "don't go overboard", and be reasonable. Personally, I believe in leaving you in a position so you can at least give it a try, and then it's up to you to decide. I leave it you. You have all the reasons to believe that the palette you have is the best in the world, and you can trust it as much as I trust my palette.
Have you been able to try a few home-bred alcohols of the Northeast and also tried blending them with food?
Yes, I have tried "Chang". That's a good question! However, I haven't yet had the opportunity to do a food pairing with the alcohols of the Northeastern India so far, but I would definitely like to experiment with it.
What potential do you see in taking these indigenous alcohols forward?
There is definitely a lot of potential for promoting food and indigenous alcohols of the Northeast, outside the Northeast. And, I think it is already happening in smaller pockets. The scope is huge.
There is a curve for every food and beverage. The first point of that curve is awareness. The second point is conversation. The third point is trials. Fourth one is salable commodity or a brand. As far as the Northeastern food is concerned, right now we are somewhere between first and second point; awareness and conversation stage. We are aware of the Northeastern foods, and we have also, slightly, started talking about it too. We are already on that journey, and we have to gradually cross each point. Then, I think people of the other countries would develop a love both for the food and beverage.
You pick the food and beverage from any part of India; it has the potential to woo the world. It is all about what kind of conversation one creates around it (food and/ or beverage).
- Your preferred holiday destination: Denmark
- Your ideal way of celebrating success or a failure: Go to the temple and thank God for it. It works either way. If you fail, you go to the temple and thank God for the learning and if you succeed, you thank God for the achievement.
- Which type of Whiskey, you enjoy the most: I think, Caroline & I share a common thread here, as for me its Lagavulin that I enjoy the most. I also have an inclination for Oban and a single malt whiskey called Caol ila.
- Wine or Whiskey, your preference? Wine
- Which one would you advise a beginner? I really like the Signature Rare and Signature Premiere and would advise the beginner to have any of these two. I really like the latter ones, premier. I think Signature Premier. I think it has a good balance of the Whiskey and allows the consumer to take the essence of the spirit.
Tell us about the things you like about Guwahati, Assam. I like the youth of Assam, and people's undying love for music. The entire city feels vibrant and young. It loves its music. Even in the smaller pockets, the city knows how to celebrate. It's amazing!
Things you would take with you for a two-day-stay in a lonely island, totally deserted from the world, would be…..
Well, in this case, I will take my books, and salt.
Any book in the pipeline?
There are three books already published, and one more is coming up. We are working on it.
Well, we wished this short interaction with both the masters to go on for some time more. By now, you all must have realized that their unwavering commitment towards their passion is commendable, and that iswhat keeps them going.