He lowers his nose into a tulip glass, inhales, and describes the aroma— marmalade, with a layer of chocolate. Neelakanta Rao R. Jagdale, 57, looks up through his designer spectacles and asks me to have a go at his prized Amrut Fusion Single Malt whisky, perhaps the only Indian whisky sold in a dozen Scottish whisky bars and retail outlets.
The made-in-Bangalore single malt was crowned the third finest whisky in the world by renowned British whisky writer Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible 2010, six years after it was launched at The Pot Still, a popular bar in Glasgow, Scotland, the mecca of whisky makers. It began retailing in India last month.
Single malt whisky makes up the premium end of the global whisky market, like Cognac in brandy. Single malt is distinguished as whisky made from barley and processed at a single distillery as opposed to the more mass-market, blended whiskies—such as Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal—which are a mix of different types of whiskies often made from varied grains.
After months of consistent requests from eager customers, “...now we have decided to showcase Amrut where it is born,” says Jagdale, managing director and son of J.N. Radhakrishna, the founder of the Rs150-crore Amrut Distilleries Ltd. On 4 February, the maker of domestic brands such as Maqintosh Premium whisky and Old Port XXX rum held a tasting session for a handful of retailers in Bangalore to introduce them to the world of single malts, best consumed with little or no ice. The Rs2,000 Amrut Fusion Single Malt and the Rs1,500 Amrut Single Malt are now available in select liquor shops such as the age-old Dewars Wine Store on St Mark’s Road in Bangalore’s central business district. Amrut, which means nectar in Hindi, will be available shortly with retailers in Mumbai, as well as at five-star hotels in select cities.
The Edinburgh arm of five-star hotel chain Hilton Hotels started stocking Amrut single malts in October. In December, it was chosen as the whisky of the month for the hotel’s whisky bar. “We selected Amrut (as whisky of the month) because it was something different,” says Mario Rupflin, food and beverage manager at the Hilton, over the phone. “Scots are a little hesitant about whiskies from outside, like India and Japan. But Amrut is quite popular in blind tastings.” Rupflin says that after a tasting, customers return for more.
This is no mean achievement for a family-run, 62-year-old liquor company which started by supplying cheap liquor to military canteens. The Scotch Whisky Association (the Edinburgh-based, trade association) has never recognized Indian whiskies because they are made of molasses—it still doesn’t, but Amrut has brought recognition for the country, says Devin Narang, president of the All India Distillers Association.
At home in the world: Amrut Distilleries (above) and its managing director Neelakanta Rao R. Jagdale are the toast of the town. Hemant Mishra/Mint
So what goes into making this jewel in the crown? Twenty years of research, experimentation, visits to Scottish distilleries, engagements with Tatlock and Thomson Ltd, a Scottish consultancy specializing in spirits, and plenty of hard work, says Surrinder Kumar, vice-president, operations, at Amrut Distilleries, who is responsible for the taste of each bottle and is stationed at the distillery, 20km from Bangalore, on Mysore Road.
Amrut moved ahead of the times in the 1980s. Unlike its peers, who turned molasses into whisky, Amrut started procuring barley from farmers in Punjab and Rajasthan, in addition to molasses. This gave it a headstart in studying barley; 20 years of trial and error followed before the first single malt whisky hit the shelves in 2004. Uniquely, Amrut Fusion combines barley grown in Punjab with imported Scottish peated barley. The two barleys are mashed, fermented with yeast, distilled in pot stills and matured in carefully chosen oak casks for four years. The two matured malts are fused in measured proportions and married for three months. Peated barley, or malted barley heated by firing peat in a kiln, gives the whisky a much desired, smoky character. Periodically, Kumar tastes each cask to make sure the maturation is on the right track.
“Heavy, thickly oaked and complex...” is how Murray described the Amrut Fusion in his Whisky Bible. “Our endeavour is to maintain the quality. It is a big challenge,” says Kumar, who holds a master’s degree in food technology from Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore, and has been with the firm for 23 years. “I do not worry about my customer when I taste the malts. Only Jim Murray comes to my mind.”