Bhutan is an odd place. It’s tiny, not even twice the size of Wales and with about as many people as Leeds, which makes its position, squeezed between the behemoths of India and China, all the more precarious. And yet it has never been successfully invaded. The British, of course, made some token efforts. Tibet was more determined, sending waves of armies into the country over centuries. Yet neither managed to subdue the place. And more recently, when some Assamese separatists chose to base themselves in the south of the country, the better to wage their insurgency in India, the Bhutanese army chased them out.
Things you might know about Bhutan include the fact that it is tricky and expensive to visit as a Westerner. Tourists were first allowed to visit in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1981 that you could arrive by plane, rather than on foot. They recently started experimenting with democracy – the first elections were held in 2008, a gift of the fourth King to his sceptical people, most of whom would appear far happier with monarchy than voting. You might also know that TV and the internet were only allowed in 1999, another gift of the fourth King, but one that was embraced with far greater enthusiasm than politicians. The fourth King also decided that the country should measure its progress not by GDP, but by Gross National Happiness.
Indeed, Gross National Happiness is probably the most famous thing about Bhutan. That, and the national obsession with chillis, especially stewed in cheese sauce as the signature dish of Bhutanese cuisine, ema-datse. There may be a link between the two. Maybe. There is cheese in just about everything, not just the chillies, so it’s no surprise that there are a lot of cows too. But instead of lush pasture, it is the green and gold of rice that stirs in the breeze. And yet the country still has a very Alpine feel, with snow peaks and pine forest – about 70% of the country is still forested – and the valley floors turned over to agriculture. Even the ubiquitous painted buildings have a Swiss feel (except that in Bhutan the paintings are of dragons and penises). Indeed, a number of Swiss nationals have made the Himalayan kingdom their home.
On my first night in Paro, an uninspiring buffet dinner – the first of many – was significantly improved by a Red Panda, an accomplished weissbier, brewed by one of those Swiss émigrés: he also makes cheese, but not the kind that goes into ema-datse. The beer itself is sweet, but no more so than most weissbiers, and it is well-balanced: perfect for one, a little cloying after the second.
So, I soon hunted out other offerings. My first Druk 11000 – the favoured pony in the limited stable of Bhutanese beers – didn’t happen until I reached Thimpu, the capital city. Or more accurately, a dusty patch of ground above the city, outside the gates to the Queen Mother’s Palace.
We had just finished our trek over the mountains from Paro, during which I had been moaning about wanting a beer; our driver greeted us at the trail end with a box of momos, some vicious chilli paste and a couple of bottles of cold, golden beer. 11000 has a hefty ABV, but while it is undoubtedly maltier and more flavoursome than most south Asian lagers, it still lacks the kind of presence you would expect from an 8% brew. Later that day I would drink another and think that it was nothing so much like a weird tasting Carling, but there, on the roadside, among the ponies and dogs at the end of a trek, it tasted of heaven.
And for all its limitations, 11000 is still a much better proposition than the 5% Druk Lager. Despite its ABV, it is thin, slightly metallic and essentially wet – it is however very fizzy, although that doesn’t help. Think bad Budweiser (the US kind) and you’re almost there. Of course, the fact that the worst beer made in such a tiny country is not dissimilar to one of the best selling beers in the world is some achievement. And that I had a choice was not to be sniffed at: later in the trip, especially when the great Red Panda drought* began, the 11000 became a reliable tipple. (*For some reason, the nearer we got to Bumthang, where the stuff is brewed, the bottled Red Pandas became as hard to spot as their namesake animals; when I made it to the brewery shop, I made sure of a few bottles to accompany the cheese – cow and yak – that I bought.)
Towards the end of trip, while the Black Necked Cranes danced in the marshy bottom of the Phobjikha Valley, I finally found the last of the local beers: Druk Supreme. Another 5% brew, it has infinitely more presence than the similarly powered Druk Lager, and compares well to a Kronenbourg 1664. While that sounds a little like damning with faint praise, the Supreme and the rest of the handful of domestically produced beers are infinitely better than most things I’ve tasted in neighbouring India or Nepal – and that even includes the underwhelming Druk Lager. Aside from the Red Panda, I had had no expectations and I actually felt quite blessed. And that was before the whisky.
Yes, whisky. Without an ‘e’. Because Bhutanese whisky draws a fairly straight line to Scotch, and not in an ‘embarrassing in comparison’ kind of way. I was trepidatious at first and, leaning on the bar at the Dewachen Hotel, I ordered the safety of a K5 – five Scotch malts blended in Bhutan. It was good. Better than many of the more popular and ubiquitous blends found on bars across the UK. It was actually special.
Emboldened, over the next days I moved onto the Bhutan-originated whiskies. By the time we were back in Paro, I had decided that Coronation was my favourite: a little peat (the mossy, old carpet kind, not the antiseptic kind) and lots of flavour. After that, Special Courier deserves a mention: peatier, but without the depth offered by Coronation. Then there is the evocatively-named but thin tasting Bhutan Highland, which had just a little too much raw grain spirit about it to be pleasant. But three out of four is not bad.
While Bhutan has unexpected pleasures for beer and whisky drinkers, wine drinkers beware. Not because the quality isn’t there – everything is imported, of course, as there is nowhere suitable for growing wine in this vertical country’s thin air, so you will find a good range of reliable New World single varietals, almost always by the bottle. No, the problem is the price, which goes up rapidly the further east you travel: there is one airport in the west, at Paro, and one ramshackle road to haul everything eastwards on panting trucks. Those haulage costs fall heavily on bulky wine destined for wealthy foreigners. Stick to an 11000 with a Coronation chaser and you’ll be fine.