An Article from the National Post , Canada by Mike Doherty / 16th March 2011
It’s been said that Amrut Distillery makes the best whisky outside of Scotland (by Whisky Magazine, 2011), the third-best whisky in the world (by Jim Murray, in Whisky Bible 2010), or the best whisky in the world (Malt Advocate magazine, 2011). And yet, it doesn’t put the age of its single malts on its bottles. Why? It’s afraid no one would buy them.
Ensconced in the dining room of the august Albany Club in downtown Toronto, where the members-only bar features luxurious, well-aged single-malt scotches, Amrut’s brand ambassador, Ashok Chokalingam, explains. “A man walking down the street without knowing much about the brand wouldn’t understand. He’d say, ‘Why should I pay $50 for a bottle of five-year-old whisky?’ ”
Amrut’s distillery is in Bangalore, southwest India; in the dry, hot climate (between 17C in the winter and 40C in the summer), and at 3,000 feet above sea level (twice as high as the highest Scottish Highlands), whisky matures quickly. Most Scottish whiskies need 10 years of aging or more to remove their harshness, whereas in Bangalore, Chokalingam says, “after three years, it’s done.”
With the Queen smiling down on him from an old photo on the wall, he explains that in India, whisky drinking is “a byproduct of colonialism,” although it has its own particular traditions. Amrut, whose name is Sanskrit for “nectar of the gods,” was founded as a blender and bottler of spirits in 1948, the year after Indian independence; its main customer was the army. In 1980, the distillery started sourcing its own barley from the foot of the Himalayas, blending the malt with alcohol produced from sugarcane and bottling the results as MaQintosh Premium Whisky. At the time, India had no single-malt culture.
Chokalingam, an engineer by training, first learned to drink whisky in the accepted Indian way: “The guy walks into a bar, takes a quarter-bottle, pours half of it and tops up with water or soda and -bang! [Downs it in] one go, and then [eats a] spicy pickle to manage the aftershock. Then waits for another five minutes . bang!”
When doing his MBA in Newcastle, England, in 2001, he befriended Rick Jagdale, Amrut’s founder’s grandson; for his marketing thesis, Jagdale took speciallymade single malt from the distilleries around England and found that people would eagerly sip the drink. In 2004, with Chokalingam’s help, he launched Amrut’s single malt brand -in Glasgow, Scotland, of all places.
“It was a questionable start,” Chokalingam acknowledges. People told him “it was like selling oil to Arabs or coal to Newcastle.”
The first few years were difficult. Amrut’s country of origin raised eyebrows, and its packaging -a cardboard canister with a picture of the Himalayas in the middle, surmounted by intertwined barley leaves -didn’t appeal to diehards. Undaunted, Jagdale “beefed up” his whisky to 46%, encased it in a classier tin cylinder, and relegated the mountains to the background; he also began marrying peated barley from Scotland with Indian malt to make Fusion -a brand with an upwardly mobile name. Its initial vanilla sweetness gives way to a smoky punch, with a lingering spiceness resulting, Chokalingam says, from cask maturation in a tropical climate.
Warming to his subject, Chokalingam enthuses: “In almost all the blind tastings, people say, ‘Where is it from? Islay?’ Then you show the bottle: ‘Woah!’ People often put it between 15 and 18 years old because of how the whisky has matured. When you say, ‘This is a five-year-old,’ they go nuts!”
Soon, critics’ accolades began to pour in; last year, after Jim Murray wrote that Fusion “just made my hairs stand on end” (in a good way, presumably), demand soared, and Amrut exported aggressively. Even the LCBO, often reluctant to take in new, innovative products, has listed three of Amrut’s whiskies for 2011, and an “intermediate sherry matured” whisky (aged in bourbon, then sherry, then bourbon again), is under consideration. And for the first time last year, Amrut began selling within India. It’s available only in Bangalore -that is, when supply meets demand. Although the whisky is made quickly, the evaporation rate, or “angel’s share,” is a whopping 12-16% per year, as compared to 2-3% in Scotland.
“God has gifted Scotland with unique beauty and nature,” Chokalingam says, “and we can produce [whisky] in five years, but at the expense of losing much more.”
Currently, they’re planning a visitors’ centre for the tourists who’ve begun making the pilgrimage to their plant, which sits in an industrial area off a highway. “Our distillery is a wee bit unique,” he offers. “We have our own coconut plantation, and often you can see some monkeys as well. This is something you can’t find in Speyside.”