Ghalib’s Favorite Whisky

Mirza Ghalib

The finest Mughal food served in the court of Patiala owed its origin to a brand of whisky favored by Mirza Ghalib.  Patiala, the erstwhile Sikh kingdom, is now known for its one time larger than life ruler – Maharajah Bhupinder Singh and its larger than the normal measure of alcohol – the “Patiala peg”. In the past, Patiala was also renowned for the variety of cuisines served in its royal kitchens.  

Mirza Ghalib, easily one of the best known Urdu poets was the poet laureate at the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of the Mughal dynasty.  Malvinder Singh, a scion of the Patiala dynasty recounts in an episode of the Indian television series “Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyan” (Rulers, Kitchens and many other Stories) that Ghalib had agreed to move to Patiala during the waning days of the Mughal empire.  He says that Ghalib, who lived the fine life, loved Old Tom, a whisky that was available in only a few select cantonments.  His supply came from his British contacts in the Meerut Cantonment, close to Delhi.

This is the only surviving picture of Mirza Ghalib taken by an unknown photographer. It was taken between 1860 and 1869. (Source: Wikipedia)

Ghalib changed his mind at the last moment, fearing that his move to Patiala would move him further away from his source and imperil his supply of Old Tom.  However, to compensate, he sent the chefs and artisans of the collapsing Mughal empire to the court of Patiala and hence the finest Mughal cuisine after the fall of the Mughal empire was served at the court of Patiala.

I’ve looked up Old Tom online and found a handful of results. An entry at WhiskeyBase.com has a bottle listed for sale for €400.  The site claims it was bottled at Tomatin which would make it from the Highlands region but that seems unlikely.  There is surprisingly hardly any other information about this whisky on the web. Based on the label, its vintage and Mr. Malvinder Singh’s claim that Ghalib liked English whisky, this could very well have been the whisky that Ghalib favored.

Was this the “Old Tom” that Ghalib loved? (Source: whiskybase.com)

However, some articles on the web also mention that in the mid-nineteenth century, whisky was distilled at the Mackinnon’s Brewery in Mussoorie and was supplied to the cantonments at Meerut, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Jabalpur. Furthermore, they claim that Ghalib got his supply of this whisky from the cantonment at Meerut. It’s unlikely though that this was Old Tom. Ludhiana and Jalandhar are in Punjab and Ghalib would have had no problem getting his supply from those cantonments had he moved to Patiala. 

View of the old Mackinnon’s Brewery, Mussoorie, India, December 1888, by M E Clarke (Source: ukauctioneers.com)

There are also claims that Ghalib actually drank a gin that was referred to as “Old Tom”, a category of gins rather than a brand. This gin was apparently fairly rough and he sweetened it with rosewater. Between the Scotch, locally brewed whisky and gin, I would put my bet on the Scotch. That seems more in line with Ghalib’s hedonistic lifestyle and taste!

Ghalib was certainly an interesting man and his life was brought to the masses via Sohrab Modi’s movie “Mirza Ghalib” in 1954.  It starred Bharat Bhushan and Suraiya and some of Ghalib’s verses were set to music by Ghulam Mohammed.  Suraiya’s rendition of his ghazals, especially the famous “Nukta cheen hai gham-e-dil usko sunaye na bane”(A critic that she is, how can I tell her my heart’s sorrow)  was especially lauded.  It moved the then prime minister of India Nehru to tell her “Tumne Ghalib ke rooh ko zinda kar diya” (You have brought Ghalib’s soul to life).  Incidentally, K.L. Saigal has also sung a version of this ghazal.  Gulzar, the famous lyricist, later produced a television series on Ghalib, with Naseeruddin Shah in the role of Ghalib.

One of Ghalib’s more familiar verses on wine finds its way into the opening lines of the old Hindi song “Mujhko yaaron maaf karna, main nashe mein hoon” (Forgive me, my friends, for I am intoxicated). The song was sung by Mukesh, filmed on Raj Kapoor and the lyrics were penned by Shailendra. The song is from the movie “Main Nashe Mein Hoon” (I am in a state of intoxication).  The verse is:

“Zaahid sharaab peene de
Masjid me baithakar
Ya vo jagah bataa de
Jahaan par khudaa na ho”

which roughly translates to

Pious one, permit me to consume alcohol
While seated in a mosque.
If not, direct me to a place
Where there is no God.

Besides his fondness for wine, Ghalib was also known for his wit.  William Dalrymple in “The Last Mughal” writes that after the defeat of the Mughal forces during the first Indian war of independence in 1857, British soldiers were rounding up Mughal soldiers and nobles in Delhi. Ghalib was brought to a British colonel and asked if he was a Muslim. Ghalib replied “Half.”  When asked to explain, he replied “I drink wine, but I don’t eat pork!”.  The colonel laughed and let him go.

An exquisite poet, with a sparkling wit and a predilection for kababs and fine Scotch, he would have made a fantastic dinner companion!  The Maharajah of Patiala was richer for the cuisine served at his table but poorer for the companionship he lost.

The featured image is by my good friend, Naren Kini.  Naren is a fantastic person, art being just one of his many talents.  He has graciously permitted me to use his exquisite sketch of Ghalib for this blog.  You can find more of Naren’s wonderful artwork on his Facebook page.  

4 thoughts on “Ghalib’s Favorite Whisky

  1. As much as the whiskey, gin and wine would have contributed to the writing, his work was beyond all the drinks. After all one of the lines did say, “Nash sharab Mein hoti toh nachathi bothal”.

    Every time I read a blog of yours, I end up learning something new. Thanks bro for another delightful read.

    1. Thanks, Naren. Yes, the genius certainly lay within Ghalib and not in the wine he partook. Thanks again for the amazing sketch. Your sketches are literally worth more than a 1000 words! Thank you for your constant support and appreciation!

  2. Very lovely write indeed, elegant intoxicating, lovingly nostalgic & a delight to read, Liked immensely, Thanks

    1. Thanks, Vijayanandmaam. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. As a poet yourself, you probably enjoy Ghalib’s poetry!

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