A Royal Salute to the sport of kings

20 11 2013

Royal Salute is a name in the Chivas Brothers’ household that is as much associated with its exquisite range of blends of highly aged scotch whiskies, as it is with the sport of polo for which the brand is an international sponsor. And, it was in the wonderful setting provided by the Singapore Polo Club – one of the region’s oldest polo clubs, just last week that I had the recent pleasure of being acquainted with both the brand’s offerings, as well as the sport it sponsors.

Polo in the Singapore Polo Club's Indoor Arena.

Polo in the Singapore Polo Club’s Indoor Arena.

My initial impressions of polo were formed early in life. It was in the many occasions in passing through Thomson Road that I got my first glimpses of horse mounted men chasing a ball with sticks – something I always hoped to catch the sight of in passing.

Thomson Road seen from across the Singapore Polo Club playing field.

Thomson Road seen from across the Singapore Polo Club playing field.

It was however at the recent Royal Salute event that I had the opportunity to better understand the sport, its heritage, and some of its rather intricate rules – and also have a hand at getting on a horse and taking a swing at the ball.

The Singapore Polo Club's outdoor arena.

The Singapore Polo Club’s outdoor arena.

After getting some formalities out of the way in the form of an indemnity statement I had to sign, the small and privileged group that Royal Salute had over were given the privilege of an introduction to the sport’s heritage and some of its basic rules by a well known retired polo professional and the club’s Polo Director, Mr Podger El-Effendi.

Mr Podger El-Effendi explaining the "rules of the road".

Mr Podger El-Effendi explaining the “rules of the road”.

It was interesting to hear of the sports origins, particularly of the modern version of it that is played today. Long held as the sport of kings – some of the better known personalities associated with polo today are in fact members of royal families around us, the sport is thought to have military origins in the training of the horse mounted armies of Central and East Asia. The name of the sport, “polo” is in fact derived from a Tibetian word “pulu”, which is a reference a root used to make the ball used in the earlier days of the sport.

Moving along the line of the ball.

Moving along the line of the ball.

Polo as it is played today is an interpretation of the sport as it was played in India in the 1800s, as the British Crown started to exert its sovereignty over the sub-continent to which the sport had arrived at by way of the Moghuls several centuries before. The British, through members of its cavalry units based in India, were responsible for setting up the first clubs and also formalising how the game was played, and exporting it to Europe and then to Argentina through settlers from the British Isles.  In Argentina, the sport found an ideal setting with the country’s geography and climate, and it is where the sport now thrives.

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From Mr El-Effendi, we hear also of rather curious sounding terms used in the sport such as a “chukka” – a playing period of seven minutes, four of which are played in the Singapore game between teams of four players, and six to eight in the full version of polo.

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Of the rules that were introduced, one that would probably be most important from a perspective of safety is what is to polo akin to road traffic “rules of the road”. In polo, the path of the ball forms the middle the line that the players should move their horses along. Also essential were rules relating to when a player is allowed to intercept the ball or attempt to block a shot by hooking the opposing player’s mallet.

Taking a swing at the ball.

Taking a swing at the ball.

After the quick introduction, it was time to head to the covered riding arena – which is used for games between teams of three players when the weather does not permit a match outdoors, for what might have been the most exciting part of the event.

The indoor arena and the stables of the Singapore Polo Club.

The indoor arena and the stables of the Singapore Polo Club.

At the arena, we met Mr Stijn Welkers, the club’s polo captain, who first introduced the horses used in the sport, and the manner in which they were prepared and dressed – three things did catch my attention. One was the tying of the tail hair to the tail bone to prevent the sweeping horse’s tail getting caught in the swinging polo mallet, the second was the use of two reins – to provide a greater degree of control on the horse’s movements, and the last was the wrapping of the horse’s legs with bandages to protect it from impact on being hit with a ball.

Mr Welkers explaining the use of the two reins.

Mr Welkers explaining the use of the two reins. Polo ponies are smaller than riding ponies and it takes four years to train one. One out of every ten selected makes it as a polo pony.

The saddle.

The saddle.

The leg wrappings.

The leg wrappings.

It was now time to get on a horse and have a swing at a ball, which Mr Welkers did say was what made you crave to get more of once you’ve done it well.

The tied up tail of the polo pony.

The tied up tail of the polo pony.

It was tough getting up the horse, even with a little help from the groom. Rather embarrassing having only just heard that polo ponies are smaller in size than riding ponies. All was forgotten when I did eventually find my way up on the saddle and get to have a swing with the mallet from my mount – with the horse being led safely by a groom. It was certainly as Mr Welkers had insisted that it would be, each successful swing does have to wanting to take one more.

Just how many does it take to get a man on a horse?

Just how many does it take to get a man on a horse?

There was an demonstration by one of the club’s instructors that followed but the excitement did not end there … especially with the promise of dinner in the club’s Mountbatten Room accompanied by the promise of indulgence in “the water of life”.

Slàinte mhath! Mr Prentice leading a toast, Scottish style.

Slàinte mhath! Mr Prentice leading a toast, Scottish style.

It was our host, Mr Peter Prentice, the Heritage Director of Chivas Brothers, who provided the introduction to the Royal Salute range of whiskies – Royal Salute, which was launched in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, we are told, “begins where other whiskies end” – in the sense that the blends start with whiskies that have been aged for a minimum of 21 years.

A glass of the 21 year old - the minimum age of a Royal Salute whisky.

A glass of the 21 year old – the minimum age of a Royal Salute whisky.

Even with the 21 year old that we started with, which accompanied the Appetizer of Smoke Salmon and Beetroot Salad, it was evident from the rich colour that the blend was one of whiskies well aged in oak casks (Chivas uses casks in which Spanish sherry and American Bourbon has been previously aged).

The appetizer.

The appetizer.

While I won’t pretend to be much of a whisky connoisseur, I could at least detect the intensity of flavours that did come with the smell and taste of the 21 year old – as with the bouquet that adding an equal amount of water did bring out.

Age does bring out the best in whisky and we did get on to the older and richer flavours of the older whiskies in Royal Salute’s range as dinner progressed – gaining 17 years as we got to the main course for which I chose the Wild Scottish Salmon cooked with Pearl Barley over the Filet Mignon.

Wild Scottish Salmon.

Wild Scottish Salmon.

The 38 year old, Royal Salute’s Stone of Destiny, named after a piece of sandstone which served as symbol of Scottish nobility, is certainly one befitting of its name. The warmness of its dark colour is accompanied by a richness of flavour which the tasting notes describes as having “embracing cedar-wood and crushed almond characters with a sherried oakiness” with which “dried fruit lingers with an assertive spiciness”. It was the spiciness, best brought out neat on the upper gums and the oakiness that did come out with what Mr Prentice described as a Chrsitmas pudding like fruity flavour.

A glass of the 62 Gun Salute.

A glass of the 62 Gun Salute.

Dessert soon followed – the very sinful lava cake was accompanied by the top-of-the-line Royal Salute 62 Gun Salute, described as the “pinnacle of the Royal Salute range”. Named after the 62 gun salute* given on the occasion of the Queen’s annual coronation celebrations from the Tower of London, and priced at USD 2500 a litre, the limited edition blend which comes in a specially crafted crystal bottle, is certainly as its name suggests, one for the extraordinary occasions.

The Royal Salute 62 Hun Salute.

The Royal Salute 62 Gun Salute.

Crafted from whiskies selected from each of its four generations of Master Blenders with a minimum age of 40 years, the blend does offer what it does promise with its notes of dark chocolate, warm spicy cinnamon and Seville oranges. Its finish which as with the other blends does linger is one of nutty and oaky flavours, with a hint of smokiness – a great way to bring a what was a delightful evening to a close.


* The 62 Gun Salute (as posted at the Chivas Brothers’ website)

The 62 Gun Salute is fired at the Tower of London every June to mark the Queen’s official birthday and accession to the throne. Gun salutes have marked important State and Royal events since Tudor times and are traditionally fired as a sign of respect or welcome. The 62 Gun Salute at the Tower of London is made up firstly of a 41 Gun Salute – the traditional 21 Gun Salute, plus a further 20, due to the Tower of London’s status as a Royal palace and fortress. Royal anniversaries, such as the Queen’s official birthday, are celebrated with an additional 21 shots as mark of respect for the monarch from the ‘City of London’, resulting in the prestigious 62 Gun Salute.


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