This is a wine blog. I know. But when India’s single malt whisky making pioneers, like Amrut Distilleries, have taken nothing short of some remarkable strides to place India on the map of top whisky manufacturing nations, they do deserve some space.
I’ve known the Jagdales, the owners of Bangalore-based Amrut and their highly committed team for quite a while now. Watched them go from strength to strength in their quiet way, sweeping up the world’s topmost awards and medals even as they have been adding variant after variant to their ever-burgeoning portfolio of whiskies. Amrut, for those who don’t know, is headed by NR Jagdale, the much-respected family patriarch. Handling key portfolios in running the company are his son, Rakshit, and his son-in-law, Trivikram Nikam. Their master distiller is the low-key professional Surinder Kumar. And the task of marketing their brand overseas lies with Ashok Chokalingam, Rakshit’s university friend.
My latest meeting was with Chokalingam at their new office in the heart of Bangalore. (The distillery lies an hour’s drive out, on Mysore road.) The occasion was Chokalingam’s nomination – yet again – for Icons of Whisky, whisky ambassador of the year by Whisky magazine – a rare accolade. The first time he won the overall title was in 2012. This year, he has won Whisky Ambassador –Rest of the World and faces off against the two other category winners, Bernie Lubbers of Heaven Hills (USA) and Diageo plc’s Colin Dunn (Scotland). The overall winner will be picked from these three regional winners on March 17, 2016 in a glittering award ceremony.
“I didn’t expect to win whisky ambassador – the rest of the world (except US and Scotland) yet again. I don’t think anyone has won it twice.” He said. Considering his competitors were from big name companies like Diageo, Suntory and Glenmorangie, it makes the win all even more impressive. Of course, it helps that Amrut has scaled great heights very quickly since its inception – famous whisky critic Jim Murray rated the Amrut Fusion 97/100 points voting it the third finest whisky in the world in his 2010 Whisky Bible, putting it ahead of 4,000 whiskies. He is quoted as saying the Fusion had “made his hair stand on end.” Amrut Fusion is also the only Indian whisky to feature in Ian Buxton’s ‘101 whiskies to have before you die’. Of course one loses count of the number of medals and accolades each new variant has picked up.
I was interviewing him for a newspaper this time, and we chatted about his manic travel schedule for a bit before turning to Spectrum, Amrut’s latest sell-out baby. Spectrum is innovative – after 3 years in ex-Bourbon barrels, the whisky is matured in unique custom-made barrels made of staves taken from five individual wooden barrels – new American Oak, new French Oak, new Spanish Oak, ex-PX cask sherry cask and ex-Olorosso sherry cask staves. Like most Amrut variants, Spectrum sells only internationally. Indians have 4 variants to choose from –Amrut Indian, Fusion, Peated and now Intermediate Sherry Cask.
Fans on social media might recall the Spectrum campaign from November 2015. It featured a tux-clad Chokalingam posing a la James Bond, a bottle of Spectrum in his hand instead of a Walther PPK. This was a cheeky take on the then-current Bond release of the moment, Spectre with Daniel Craig. But the idea of the whisky itself was novel. How did the idea of Spectrum happen? “It thought of the idea one night. I called Rakshit, and he gave me the go ahead. I jumped onto a plane and went to the cooper. ‘I want a barrel created from 5 different woods,’ I told him. He’d never heard of anything like that before! It was an experiment which worked. I personally believe the Spectrum tastes something like a 50 year old Glen Grant. No one will believe it’s only 6 and ½ years old at the time of bottling.” While the Spectrum released to rave reviews, the earlier release, Amrut Naarangi, another innovative sold-out variant with an accent of orange flavours drawn from the wood itself (malt whisky making rules are very strict) and its bottle design speaks of its Indian heritage. What else is coming next, I ask. “One can keep experimenting, but we need to consolidate our previously launched brands. We have 3 more in the pipeline…but need to stop for a while.”
When Amrut calls their malt ‘limited edition’ it really is just that, he tells me, “3000 bottles at most. Now after Spectrum, we are under pressure to make more to meet demands. Our first release of 1000 bottles has been wiped out – can you believe even the Chairman doesn’t have a bottle!” Amrut is now working on their third release of Two Continents (matured in two continents – Asia and Europe) variant, and standards must be met, he says. “We won’t compromise on quality. I guess you can say we are victims of our own success. We make so little whisky…and then our angels drink way too much,” he says with a chuckle.
Amrut fans are a breed apart and Chokalingam recounts fascinating tales of a few – a Scandinavian fan who buys every bottle come what may and has Amrut’s Greedy Angels tattooed onto his forearm. Another who compiles a detailed list of every variant made, every process and detail documented meticulously. “Probably beyond even our own distillery’s capabilities,” exclaims Chokalingam. The bonus of travelling is getting to meet some of Amrut’s most ardent, most colourful fans, and they have many. Their devotion to Amrut is something even George Clooney hasn’t seen in his fans.
So How does Chokalingam survive his punishing travel schedule? He loves food and enjoys experimenting with different cuisines, and confesses he doesn’t miss Indian food on his sojourns. Just a few days earlier, he was having ‘phenomenal sushi and sake’ at Hapa Izakaya, in Vancouver. “The chairman tells me I’d survive even in Siberia with my love of food.” Another chuckle.
Chokalingam may not be as famous or widely recognized in India as he is among whisky connoisseurs abroad, but it’s all good. “In this industry, we enjoy sitting together and chatting, exchanging notes, helping each other out. It’s great.” Finally I couldn’t resist asking him about his favourite Amrut. Eventually he confessed, “Portonova. I love big-hearted whiskies and this is one. It’s big, bold and 62.1% at cask strength.”
Book Amrut distillery tours at http://www.amrutdistilleries.com
News alert: Ashok Chokalingam won ‘World Whisky Ambassador Award’ at The World Whiskies Awards – 2016 by Whisky Magazine in London, the awards were held at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London on Thursday 17 March 2016. Winning the title of ‘World Whisky Ambassador’ for the first time in 2012 & once again now in 2016, he still remains the only person from India to have ever won this accolade and also the only one to win the prestigious accolade twice. In the years since Amrut’s launch in 2014, Ashok has travelled over 5,00,000 miles across the world, door to door, showcasing Amrut’s malts and making it the global brand it is today. Moreover, Ashok is credited with the innovation in the Single Malts, some of his newest creations being the Amrut Spectrum & Amrut Naarangi.