As Amrut readies to launch a single malt variant in the country, we find out how it has changed the perception of Indian whiskey. By Ruma Singh
It was London, 2006. On an official visit to check on the progress of his new Amrut Indian single malt launched in 2004, Neelakanta Rao Jagdale realised that things were not going well. The audacious prospect of selling coals to Newcastle — in this case single malt whiskey to England and Scotland, seemed likely to fail. “How far should we take this?” he wondered. The Jagdales, owners of Amrut, had sunk a large amount of their own resources into this ‘experiment’. After a meeting one evening, he decided to take a walk in Tavistock Square. Sitting down on a bench, he looked up to see a statue of Mahatma Gandhi.
“I began to think,” he recalled. “Here was a statue of a man in the very country he had fought against. What if Gandhiji had given up the fight to free India? Would I be sitting here today? I decided then to give it another shot. What I learnt, looking at Gandhiji at that moment, was about hope and inspiration.” Jagdale decided to give his single malt whiskey another try in Britain, against advice that he sell only in India. Today, the company has found worldwide fame and has expanded its Indian portfolio to include an award-winning natural rum, Two Indies. Indian malt lovers can also look forward to drinking the Amrut Intermediate Sherry Cask whiskey, as the company is almost ready for its Indian launch after its success in the West. It will sell alongside the Amrut Indian, Amrut Fusion and Amrut Peated whiskies in India. Incidentally, most Amrut malt whiskies are sold out within weeks of being launched, snapped up by eager collectors and fans, and only available now in auctions to a lucky few who might chance upon them on the Internet or in a rare whiskey shop, tucked away in a corner of Britain. This is especially true of some variants which have been made in small quantities.
The early years
But things were not always this rosy. “The 2004-08 period was sheer hell,” recalls Ashok Chokalingam, brand ambassador and head, international sales, to whom is attributed Amrut’s success in the West. “The very notion of selling a malt whiskey from India in Britain, was unheralded. Those were days of Bollywood music and chicken tikka masala, not malt whiskey. But we knew our product was good, we just had to convince the consumer of this.” Chokalingam, a mechanical engineer, was a friend of Rakshit Jagdale, executive director and son of Neelakanta Jagdale. They met at University of Newcastle, while doing their MBA, and he was persuaded to join Amrut. “Our wavelengths matched,” says Rakshit.
As part of his thesis on the subject of malt whiskies, Rakshit conducted informal tastings of the pre-launch Amrut Indian single malt in Glasgow, the birthplace of single malt whiskey. At Glasgow’s famous Pot Still pub, tasters were stunned into silence when the origin of the whiskey they had rated so highly was revealed, recalls Rakshit. But the trauma was far from over. “We had no road map for international sales,” says Rakshit. Both he and Chokalingam would carry bottles of Amrut around to every whiskey festival and competition in Europe. News of the revolutionary new single malt from India began doing the rounds in whiskey circles. Soon Amrut was making headlines.
The awards started racking up when the famous Malt Maniacs, an independent group of whiskey connoisseurs widely regarded among the top whiskey authorities of the world, awarded the newly-launched Amrut Fusion (made of 50 per cent each of Indian barley from Punjab and Rajasthan and peated barley from Scotland) the Best Natural Cask whiskey in the Daily Drams (under 50 pounds) Category at the Malt Maniacs Awards 2009.
The tide was finally turning. Still, Amrut was little known beyond whiskey connoisseurs’ circles. Until leading whiskey expert Jim Murray named Amrut Fusion the third best malt whiskey in the world in his famous Whisky Bible 2010, and gave it an incredible 97 points, calling it “one of the best malts ever made anywhere in the world.” Waxing eloquent, he noted, “It is one of those which command a big mouthful, a chair with a headrest … and silence. You will chew for seemingly hours and never quite get to the bottom of its mystical complexity.” US-based Malt Advocate magazine joined the chorus writing, “India’s Amrut distillery changed the way many think of Indian whiskey — that it was just cheap Scotch whisky blended with who knows what and sold as Indian whiskey. Amrut is making whiskey, and it’s very good.”
Journey to the top
A need to innovate is Amrut’s main mantra. “The conditions under which we produce our whiskies are very challenging compared to Scotland, Ireland, even the US,” says Rakshit. In Bangalore, they lose close to 12 per cent per annum to the angel’s share (alcohol evaporated during maturation), whereas in Scotland it is under 2 per cent, he adds. Whiskey making is expensive here. One year in a barrel in India is equivalent to four years in Scotland, explains Chokalingam. “Because of our weather, which combines elevation with high temperature and low humidity, our whiskey matures much faster.” Chokalingam went on to win Whisky magazine’s prestigious Icon of Whisky award in 2011, beating brand ambassadors from companies like Diageo and Glenmorangie. (He describes it as ‘a bit like winning the Oscars of the whiskey world’.)
Amrut quickly scaled the heights of fame thereafter, reaching a turnover of `220 crores last year. This year, it will sell in 32 countries around the world, including high-end retailers like Harrods, Selfridges and Waitrose on the one hand, and remote stores like the tiny Canadian town of Yellowknife, near the Arctic Circle, with winter temperatures of –45 degrees, on the other. Here, two stores sell Amrut.
Stocks are limited and demand outstrips supply, yet the family is clear they will not give in to international pressure to increase production. “We distribute 2,50,000 litres of whiskey per annum. That’s small compared to some international beverage giants, but we are happy with that,” says Rakshit. “This is not a business which sees instant results,” adds Thrivikram Nikam, Jagdale’s son-in-law and executive director, marketing and public relations, “What we distill this year, we see after five or seven.” Amrut prices whiskies in line with international brands, but unlike many Indian wine and whiskey companies, chooses to create its bottle and label designs in-house to reflect its Indian heritage.
All in the family
Loyalty ranks high in the small firm. “The average tenure of our senior managers is over 25 years; that tells you something,” says Rakshit. There’s total involvement across the board. Neelkanta Jagdale, 61, is managing director and rainmaker. “He has amazing energy even now,” says Rakshit, “The Amrut journey was tough; anyone else would have given up long ago.” Despite their fame overseas, the family is surprisingly modest about their achievements and remain very hands on, attending every whiskey tasting, always manning the counters themselves.
With heavy work commitments, other interests tend to take a back seat. But the family that plays together certainly stays together: the Jagdales make a sporty unit. Rakshit, a swimming champion started at age six, going on to represent state and country. This triggered his father’s interest in swimming, and Neelakanta Jagdale is now the president of the Karnataka Swimming Association (KSA), while Rakshit is joint secretary. Jagdale is also the president of the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre (BAC), famous for turning out swimming champs like Shikha Tandon and Rehan Poncha. Father, son and son-in-law participate in the annual KSA Masters swim meet, while Neelakanta Jagdale swims daily to keep fit. The family interest in the sport extends to the third generation, Rakshit’s son and Thrivikram’s daughter.
Golf is the other Jagdale sporting passion. The family tries taking time off from their work schedules to play weekend golf together. Their annual two-week trip to Ooty, where they have a holiday home, sees them all on the picturesque Ooty golf course (they sponsor an annual golf tournament there). The family makes it a point to spend important festivals together, from Diwali to Sankranti, and enjoy quick family getaways to Goa.
Seeing is believing
Meanwhile, accolades and awards continue to come. Amrut sells 14 whiskies in all, besides its regular spirits portfolio. Praise from the international whiskey community and press keep pouring in with each addition. Fans fly in from as far as USA and Japan, some just for a day, waiting patiently in the visitors’ room to meet with Neelakanta Jagdale. “Some still can’t believe that malts of such high calibre are being made in India,” says Thrivikram, “They want to see for themselves.” For the first time, a hitherto unknown company from a country not known for creating quality stuff, had entered the world stage and conquered it without too much ado.
The big ’uns
■ Amrut Two Continents (Whisky Advocate’s New World Whisky of the Year in 2012) limited edition was released to rave reviews, winning the Liquid Gold award in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible straight away. It is matured twice over, to add complexity. “We wanted to move it to the Himalayas, but laws didn’t permit, so we moved it to a secret location in Europe, hence the name Two Continents,” says Chokalingam.
■ Amrut Kadambam, named after the Tamil dish of mixed vegetables, is matured in four separate barrels — first bourbon, then sherry cask finally in brandy and rum casks. The Amrut Intermediate sherry cask variant was a result of experiments with sherry casks. The result made Jim Murray exclaim, “How the heck have you guys managed to make this?” before giving it 96.5 points.
■ Amrut Portonova (2010 -sold out), was named after Parangipettai or Porto Novo, a village in Tamil Nadu briefly under Portuguese rule. It uses 80-year-old port pipes.
■ Amrut Herald (2011 -sold out), was shipped 5,000 miles to mature in Helgoland, a tiny island in the North Sea known for its beautiful climate and duty free shops. Only 160 feet above sea level, a mere five barrels of this whiskey came here after distilling and maturing in Bangalore. The move, says Chokalingam, was a logistical nightmare which paid off in the end.
■ Rarest is Greedy Angels, an eight-year-old single malt boasting a profile similar to a 30-year-old Speyside malt. Selling for GBP160 in retail – you would be lucky to find a bottle – only 144 bottles of this variant were made, sold out, and are already fetching over GBP400 in auctions.
Tale the tour
Whiskey lovers can book a visit to the Amrut distillery on Mysore Road. Tours are conducted by prior appointment on Wednesdays and Saturday afternoons. Email to book, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Single malt tasting
Single malt whiskey is best drunk neat, in a narrow-topped nosing glass or a Glencairn glass. At most, experts advise a splash of room-temperature water. “Nose (sniff) the whiskey first,” advises Rakshit Jagdale. “Then take a small sip, roll over your tongue, try and identify its character. Single malts are meant to be sipped slowly. Avoid too much dilution, or adding ice or soda. Though at the end of the day, it should be enjoyed the way you like it.”
By the way
■ All Amrut bottles are also inscribed in Kannada on the label
■ Most Amrut whiskies have got scores of over 90 — rated exceptional
■ Amrut Fusion is listed in the book, 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die by Ian Buxton
■ Most Amrut whiskies are named by Chokalingam
Neelkanta Jagdale has the last word: There’s no such thing as perfection, we must strive for it, not rest on our laurels.