Whisky with a dash of Lassi! Greg Benson, Brand Ambassador for Dewar’s India, spills his cocktail secrets
Mixologist and distiller Greg Benson, moved to India four months ago, to work as Dewar's India’s Brand Ambassador.
Born and brought up in Glasgow, Scotland, Greg was initially an engineering student who ended up working in the whisky industry. His first memory of Scotch Whisky goes back to his childhood, during family parties and social clubs in the community. “I remember some of the older men ordering a drink called ‘Grouse’ and I would often wonder what that was. Little did I know at the time that this first exposure to our national drink would be the beginning of my career,” Greg recalls.
After completing his MSc in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, Greg worked as a craft distiller in Aberdeenshire in North Eastern Scotland for a year and a half. Last year, Greg was given the opportunity to move across the world as Brand Ambassador for Dewar’s India.
YS Weekender recently caught up with Greg Benson, during the Dewar’s show ‘You Got Chef’d!’, which was hosted by Chef Ranveer Brar along with Greg.
Mixologist and distiller Greg Benson
Edited excerpts from the interview:
YSWeekender: What was your childhood like?
Greg Benson: I had a very happy childhood, with my parents always encouraging me and my elder sister to explore new ideas and hobbies. We travelled a lot as a family during my school holidays, mainly around Europe, and I think this definitely influenced my decision to move halfway across the world to India.
YSW: You studied engineering, but ended up as a mixologist. How did that happen?
GB: While studying engineering at Strathclyde University, I took up bartending to help finance my degree. It opened up the world of whisky to me and I understood how each whisky’s production gives it a unique flavour. The art behind it all was fascinating and I was curious to learn more.
Later, I decided to pursue a postgraduate M.Sc. degree in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. The years I spent studying distillation laid the foundation of all the Scotch whisky cocktails and experiences I would curate in the years to come.
YSW: What would you become if not a mixologist?
GB: Honestly, it’s difficult for me to even imagine being in a different field. With my distillation background, I’d love to move back into becoming a Master Blender or Distiller at some point in the future. Although that’s definitely a few years away, as I’m using this opportunity to travel and see the world as much as possible right now.
YSW: Who is your inspiration?
GB: I’d say a few of the mixologists I worked with when I was bartending really pushed me to develop my cocktail making skills, and constantly improve as a bartender, and to think of new and exciting techniques and ingredients.
Another inspiration, and part of the reason I took this job, would be due to Tommy Dewar. One of the sons of our founder, Tommy was an absolute maverick. There are so many great stories about him, but one of my favourites is the fact he travelled the world for the first time in his early 20s, spreading the word about Scotch whisky. That’s definitely something I can relate to.
YSW: What are the preferences of Indians - how do they like their cocktails?
GB: Whisky is definitely India’s favourite dram. Consumers are generous and open to innovations with the spirit. This gives mixologists the chance to play around with classic and versatile brands, to curate differentiated Scotch whisky experiences.
So far, our renditions of the classic Dewar’s Highball cocktail have received a great response across trade outlets and experiential events. This encouraged us to take our cocktail and gourmet food experience to BACARDÍ NH7 Weekender in the form of an innovative platform, The Doers Club.
YSW: How are Indian mixologists different from their western counterparts?
GB: Flavour palates in each region present an interesting diversity among mixologists. The Indian palate is a great amalgamation of the country’s history and tropical weather. It gives mixologists an interesting pedestal to work with, especially the tangy and spicy flavours in Indian cuisine.
Indian mixologists are making most of the flavour profiles available to them and creating newer variants each day. In the Dewar’s Highball Challenge, a cocktail innovation competition for bartenders across the country, we saw some classic indigenous ingredients like cardamom, saffron and mosambi (sweet lime) used in the cocktails.
Interestingly, globetrotting millennials have been seeking styles and flavours that are globally inspired but with a local twist. Luckily, there are traditional foods and fruits that help inspire these flavours.
I tried my hand at this with the Mango Mosambi Highball, a simple mix of lassi, mosambi and whisky which was delicious.
Greg with Chef Ranveer Brar and Swetha Tripathi
YSW: What are some frequent mistakes Indian mixologists make?
GB: Many mixologists across the globe believe using complicated techniques and finesse leads to better cocktails, which isn’t necessarily true. The most important skill lies in balancing the right ingredients with the flavours of the Scotch whisky and marrying them seamlessly.
YSW: How do you make a Tommy Highball?
GB: The ‘Tommy Highball’ is the most preferred Highball among Indian consumers. It is also a great example of how balancing is the most important skill.
All it takes is the Dewar’s 12-year-old whisky with ginger ale and a lemon wheel garnish and you have a refreshing drink ready. Lemon enhances the variant’s fresh fruit flavours, and technique wise, it’s simply soda, a dash of lemon and Scotch. It is a very simple cocktail, easy to make, yet refreshing on the palate.
YSW: What are the tips and tricks to make a great drink?
GB: One important thing to remember is that a drink is only as good as its worst ingredient. By that I mean quality is key. Make sure you use premium spirits, as well as fresh ingredients whenever possible, especially when it comes to fruit.
Another simple way to improve any drink is with the right garnish. People drink with their eyes first, so an attractive garnish, such as a fresh mint sprig or orange twist, will entice the guest before they even drink, elevating the whole experience.
YSW: Are there any proportions that a mixologist must follow?
GB: As for proportions, a simple sour template is a great place to start. Take the Whisky Sour, it’s two parts whisky to one-part lemon juice, sweetened slightly with white sugar. Once you get the hang of that, it’s easy to start adding your own personal touches.
A great example of this is the Tandoor Penicillin, a mix of Dewar’s 12-year-old, lemon, and smoked honey-ginger syrup. It seems complex at first, but poke under the surface and you’ll see it shares the same DNA as the Whisky Sour. I’d encourage everyone at home to give their ideas a shot and see where their creativity takes them.
YSW: What is your favourite drink?
GB: I can’t narrow that down to just one! Although with me not being used to the Indian heat, recently I’ve grown fond of refreshing Scotch Highballs with a dash of bitters.
YSW: How was your experience with 'You Got Chef'd!'?
GB: It was amazing! Dewar’s came together with Gobble to curate a fun-filled gourmet food and Scotch whisky cocktail experience for the new-age millennial occasions.
It was a first of its kind experience and I had immense fun hosting with Chef Ranveer Brar. He brought in Indian palate inspired dishes, which allowed for interesting flavours in Scotch whisky cocktails as well. He was great to work with, really collaborative and an all-round gentleman. In fact, I was even roped into some South Indian dancing with Nakuul Mehta, and an impromptu song with singer Arjun Kanungo.