Last month, Eric Asimov, the respected wine critic of the New York Times, along with the paper’s popular food critic Florence Fabricant, sat down with two whiskey experts from New York for a tasting of 20 of the best single malts made outside of Scotland. In their tasting report published in the paper soon after, under the title of ‘Single Malts, but Don’t Call Them Scotch’, they rated Navazos Palazzi from Spain to be the best, followed by Lord Lieutenant Kinahan’s from Ireland. Among the 10 single malts they liked best, two each were from Ireland and France, and one each from Spain, Japan, the US, Austria, Taiwan and, at a very impressive no.8, was Amrut from India. It was a major endorsement for the locally made whisky. Amrut Indian Single Malt Whisky, the New York Times said, was “gentle and inviting, with flavors of cinnamon, licorice, vanilla and butter.”
There are now three Indian single malts on the global market, and they are making quite an impression. In a country where molasses whiskies and rums rule the roost, many entrepreneurs are braving the weather and maturing malts in their backyard, sending ripples through the premium international markets. Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries, owned by the Jagdale family, first set the ball rolling in 2004, while Goa-based Paul P. John, who owns John Distilleries, raised the bar in 2012 with his Paul John Indian Single Malt. A few months ago, they were joined by liquor major Radico Khaitan, with their Rampur range of single malts, named after the historic town in north-west UP where the distillery is based. All the guts and gumption of these high rollers paid off, when whisky guru Jim Murray warned the Scots of the ‘arrival of Indian whisky as a wake-up call.’
So, what really sets these Indian malts apart? Is it the confidence that India can produce a single malt, the conviction and courage to make it happen? For the Jagdales, it was time to turn the attention away from Scotland to a country that was really never on anyone’s malt shopping list. They went all out to prove their ‘malted’ mettle, that too on Scotch’s home turf. The first cheers came from a 145-year old pub in Glasgow called Pot Still, where the then-anonymous Amrut’s excellent depth and clear colour were mistaken for a 10-12-year old Scotch from Speyside. “But when drinkers found out it was from India, there was jaw-dropping awe. We had elicited a response from Scotland itself.
Step one towards Amrut, India’s first indigenously made single malt was taken,” recounts Rakshit Jagdale, the third generation distiller from the founding family and executive director of the distillery. With a ‘Liquid Gold’ cheer from Murray, Amrut found a deserving spot in Ian Buxton’s famous book, ‘101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’. It also opened the doors for other players like Paul John, who chose the unconventional Goa as a setting for a single malt. Post a global launch in the UK, an impressed Murray gave a flattering 96.5 out of 100 to the Paul John Edited version for three consecutive years. Awards like the Asian Distiller of the Year 2015 and the Wizards of Whisky Gold Award 2015 were further shots in the arm, and a hint of the world finally starting to recognise India as a maker of good single malts. That space got even more expanded recently, with Rampur rolling out from the Rampur Distillery and its launch in Las Vegas. Says Sanjeev Banga, Radico Khaitan’s international business head, “It is the Kohinoor of single malts’.
Palate, Passion and Portfolio
Unlike the blended whisky drinker, the single malt consumer is considered to be more receptive to newer flavours. This is where the three Indian single malts score — in the diversity of their geographical locations and their enterprising efforts at malting and experimenting, going as far as flying in peat from Scotland for that smoky, underlying flavour that compliments the Indian palate. There is a burst of Indian summer in Rampur, a mouthful of sun-kissed beaches in Paul John and a taste of a tropical southern edge to Amrut.
Paul P. John
International success has spurred Amrut to innovate constantly. There are as many as 18 variants of Amrut single malts in their stable now, with a 19th version slated to be launched in the next two months. It will be India’s first 12-year-old, called Amrut Greedy Angels, after Greedy Angels 8 and 10 year old, introduced over the last two years. It’s a Chairman’s reserve and a limited edition of 120 bottles, meant for export only. The sheer number of variants is also a reminder to Indian consumers who are still stuck on the hugely popular and neverin- stock Amrut Fusion, that there is a whole big bouquet of Amruts to explore. Paul John’s widely acclaimed Edited is a mix of 5-7 year old whiskies with peat which has travelled all the way from Aberdeen and the Islay regions of Scotland, while their Classic is indeed a treat, made up of malts estimated to have been aged for around seven years in bourbon oak and bottled at cask strength. Non-chill filtered, peated and unpeated and bottled at 46 per cent strength (sometimes even more), these malts are as good as many that are made in Scotland.
Impediments to a Smooth Dram
We may be the largest consumers and producers of whiskies, but when it comes to a single malt, it’s a different ball game altogether. Says Michael John D’Souza, Paul John’s Master Distiller, “The maturation process is such that every six months I get a different whisky, and I have to sample 30 to 50 barrels a day to keep checking the taste, because one year here is equivalent to almost four years in Scotland. We lose a lot to climate, and that, among many other things, is a challenge.” Another is packaging. As Rakshit of Amrut says, “To conform to European standards, it took us a good one and a half years. Our entire packaging, except the canister, is still done in the UK.” To stand out on a shelf, in a market of more than 4500 whiskies, packaging counts, and Rampur seems to have got an edge on that. Its label features a watermark in Devnagri script that reads 1943, the year of the establishment of the distillery, while the fat and stout bottle, with a heavy glass bottom, sits in an ornate silk pouch.
Michael John D’Souza
Interestingly, the three single malts all used the international market as a launchpad. Rakshit is amused at how their strategy of launching overseas first has been followed by others. Paul John was launched in the UK, while Rampur was showcased in Las Vegas. Of course, there is a shrewdly commercial reason for this. As is well known, the Indian consumer’s perception is still heavily influenced by all things foreign. “Our fascination with something from abroad makes companies choose the international path first. Amrut took to foreign shores by launching their whisky abroad. Once they gained a reputation, it was easy to make a home run. Similarly, now that we’ve made our initial mark in the global territory, it will be simpler to launch the brand here,” says D’Souza. Manufacturers say it is still a challenge to convince an Indian to buy a locally made single malt, but things are changing. Banga and D’Souza sense that consumers who like to try new world whiskies are becoming more aware and willing to experiment. The biggest growth comes from the globetrotting youngsters in the 28-40 age group, who are taking to malt and are quite happy to drink the Indian versions. In the words of D’Souza, “Only when you develop a palate, increase your knowledge and appreciate what you drink will value for whisky grow.”
Also Rakshit Jagdale’s favourite, this is a limited edition that gets its name from a mixed vegetable dish in Tamil. True to its title, it is matured in four casks – bourbon, sherry, brandy and then rum. Reserved for international markets.
Paul John Peated
Select Cask Michael D’Souza introduced us to this single malt, reserved for the international markets. Bottled at a high 55.5 per cent, created using peat imported from Scotland, notes of BBQ smoke, sugar and slightly damp, earthy notes, with bitter orange accompanied by hints of tropical fruit and spice.
Selects Casks It has a nice maltiness, with notes of vanilla, caramel, candy, ginger root, brown sugar, fruity on adding water, a balance of spices, finishing with a creamy lingering taste. Reserved for international markets.