When it comes to whisky, the Indians can definitely make a statement.
Some news every Indian can toast to: Scotland’s Whiskymagazine announced its much-awaited Icons of Whisky 2016, and Amrut Distilleries’ own globetrotting international marketing head Ashok Chokalingam won The World Whisky Brand Ambassador Of The Year (rest of the world, except Scotland, and the US) for an unheard of second time in its history.
The first time was in 2012, when Chokalingam swept the global awards, beating big names from mighty whisky companies like Diageo PLC, and Glenmorangie. This time, he has pipped brand ambassadors from companies like Nikka and Beam Suntory. The finals, where he is pitted against US icon Bernie Lubbers of Heaven Hill and Scotland winner Colin Dunn from Diageo will take place in London on 17 March. “It’s like the Oscars of the whisky world,” he says.
I caught up with the affable Chokalingam, recently back from a whirlwind of a trip where he travelled through Canada, New Zealand, Australia, UK and Spain over two months. He confessed he was exhausted from his long, albeit successful tour. “I miss my daughters,” he admits. Once back, he tries to spend a little time with them before taking off again. So what exactly does a brand ambassador do? “In short, preach and teach about your brand,” he replied. “If the brand is well-established, like Glenfiddich, it’s easier, but new brands like Amrut require more effort. My primary job is international sales and marketing. As ours is a small firm I do both. All of us do, right from our chairman (NR Jagdale).”
For the uninitiated, the small, family-run Amrut has a swelling portfolio of 23 super-successful whisky variants, all sold out on first announcement. It also boasts of a growing tribe of die-hard fans who go to great lengths to buy a bottle from the small international allocations. Chokalingam recounts eyebrow-raising fan tales from his travels. “It’s heartening to know that an Indian product can reach the pinnacles of international appreciation, and that our industry is viewed so well internationally.” The Amrut folk are nothing if not modest.
Chokalingam is a mechanical engineer who met second-generation owner Rakshit Jagdale while doing his MBA in Newcastle, and joined Amrut 12 years ago. Stories abound about how the pair would trudge from pub to pub trying to convince the incredulous Scots that India could actually make whisky. Today, having beaten the best of Scotland in open competitions, Amrut has had the last laugh. And Chokalingam is credited with conceptualising many of Amrut’s recent innovations, like the orange-accented Naarangi and their latest super-hit variant, Spectrum. Only 1,000 bottles were made, all sold out in a jiffy. Chokalingam’s social media campaign, which he dreamt up one fine night, has him posing in a white dinner jacket a la Daniel Craig in Spectre (it coincided with the release of Spectrum). “I thought of it on a whim. People have loved its fun element,” he says.
So where does he get his ideas from? “It’s easy if you love what you do. Then everything falls into place,” he says with a laugh.