Distillery Focus

The nectar of life

Davin de Kergommeaux heads to India to investigate the home of Amrut whisky
By Davin de Kergommeaux
Mark Twain once called India “the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.” And to think, such enthusiasm when Twain hadn’t even tasted Amrut, the Indian whisky whose name in Sanskrit means ‘nectar of life’.

When Ashok Chokalingam was completing his MBA in Newcastle, England, in 2001, he took a special interest in the thesis his friend and classmate, Rick Jagdale, was researching. This was not your conventional approach to scholarly academic research. Chokalingam joined Jagdale as he schlepped an unknown single malt from bar to bar recording people’s reactions. The mystery malt turned out to be not from Scotland, but from India’s Amrut distillery, the quirky, quaint and colourful distillery that Jagdale’s grandfather, Radhakrishna Jagdale, founded in Bangalore.

In 1948, India had just gained independence from Britain, but many British traditions remained. “Distillation came with the British,” Rick tells me. “Before that the Indian drink was ‘Toddy’ naturally fermented from coconut or palm flowers. Radhakrishna Jagdale saw an opening to supply India with liquors similar to those it had come to know colonial rule. He opened Amrut as a small liquor blending and bottling unit, specialising in ‘IMFL’ – Indian-made foreign liquor – and that remains the bulk of Amrut’s output.

Jagdale’s business flourished. By the 1970s, his success blending purchased alcohols led him to branch out into something more adventurous. He installed a seven-plate column still to distil his own brandy from a local grape called Bangalore Blue. Jagdale knew he was on to something and, in the early 1980s, added another distilled product: malt whisky for blending. Then, as now, Jagdale sourced his malted barley from Rajasthan and Punjab in northern India. More recently, his successors have added peated barley from the United Kingdom.

Whisky matures quickly in Bangalore’s climate and that first Amrut malt whisky was ready within 18 months. India did not have a single malt culture at the time so there was no thought of bottling it as single malt. Rather, it was blended with alcohol distilled from sugarcane to produce MaQintosh Premium Whisky. Success brought expansion – the current distillery was built in 1987. Amrut’s active improvement program saw Tatlock & Thomson spirit consultants, Drs. Jim Swan and Harry Riffkin, visit Bangalore in 1989 to help refine Amrut’s whisky making processes.

"We attended every whisky show we could.” Then he and Ashok did a blind tasting at Glasgow’s famous Pot Still pub.” Jaws dropped,” he tells me, “when the source of the whisky was revealed. These were serious malt drinkers and they thought they were tasting a very good 12 Years Old Speyside malt”



When Rick Jagdale returned from Newcastle, MBA in hand, he told his father, Neel Jagdale, about his unorthodox market research in England. Neel, who had taken over the chairmanship of Amrut distillery when his father, Radhakrishna, passed away, listened intently. He was very impressed with his son Rick’s findings. Neel sensed an opportunity and, in 2004, asked Rick and his chum, Ashok, to return to Glasgow, Scotland, and there, in the whisky heartland, formally launch Amrut single malt whisky to the world. The gamble paid off. Their success led Ashok into his role as global ambassador for the brand while Rick returned home to help manage the business.

Although Amrut is well known to malt whisky aficionados now, those first four or five years were tough, says Rick. "We attended every whisky show we could.” Then he and Ashok did a blind tasting at Glasgow’s famous Pot Still pub.” Jaws dropped,” he tells me, “when the source of the whisky was revealed. These were serious malt drinkers and they thought they were tasting a very good 12 Years Old Speyside malt.” Formal recognition followed in 2008 when a Blackadder-bottled Amrut pushed the Scots, the Irish, and the Japanese aside to win the Non-Plus-Ultra Award in the annual Malt Maniacs Competition. Connoisseurs quickly took notice and accolades for Amrut began to pour in.

The temperate microclimate of Bangalore is a welcome respite from steamy India. Still, it’s warm –63° (17°c) in winter and as high as 91° Fahrenheit (32°c) in summer. Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka state in southern India, is also high and dry. It sits 3,000 feet above sea level, receiving just 34 inches of rain a year. Under these conditions, even as single malt, the whisky is ready to bottle after just four to five years in the barrel.

“India’s different when it comes to maturation,” master distiller Surrinder Kumar tells me, “it’s a furnace. Accept it if you like or don’t accept it if you don’t like it, but the whisky starts reaching its peak in four years. Then you have to taste it regularly because by five years it starts to get too much tannin.” What’s more, Amrut’s hyper-active angels take a full 11 per cent of the volume every year. Fortunately in Bangalore’s dry climate, most of the angel’s share is water.

With five and a half million residents, Bangalore (locally re-named Bengaluru in 2007) is India’s sixth largest city and the 40th largest in the world. Despite having the highest traffic density in India, its countless dogs and yes, the occasional cow, feel safe to wander its streets. And so did I. I found the people of Bangalore friendly, helpful, and welcoming.

As India’s high-tech centre, Bangalore is a city of stark contrast with desperate poverty juxtaposed to conspicuous wealth. Radhakrishna, Neel, and now Rick address this in their own private way. They decided against computers and automation in order to employ 450 people in the distillery. Mind you, those people produce four million cases of liquor a year, one quarter of them blended whisky, a mere 10,000 of them single malt.

Malted barley is mashed in water that is trucked 15 miles from a well Amrut owns in a pesticide-free agricultural area. Water-cooled jackets keep the temperature of six 10,000 litre (2,200 gallon) stainless steel fermenters from going above 28° C (82° F) during a six-day fermentation that uses commercial distillers yeast. “Bacterial growth starts at 30° (86° F),” Kumar tells me. “It’s mostly lactobacillus, friends at home but enemies in the distillery,” he continues, referring to the role lactobacillus plays in making yogurt.

The fermented wort is pumped into a 5,000 litre, Indian-made, semi-conical wash still for a 14-hour slow distillation. “This allows more reflux, more contact time with the copper,” says Kumar.

A second distillation in an Indian-made, but typically Scottish, 5,000 litre (1,100 gallon) copper spirit still with a boil ball, produces spirit between 68% and 70% ABV. Each distillation run makes enough spirit to fill 20 barrels when diluted to 62.8% ABV.

A mix of new oak and used Bourbon barrels is imported from the U. S. “We tried importing staves to save money,” says Kumar, “but that’s the worst thing you can do. We have to smell the barrel to make sure it’s OK.”

Amrut has a small cooperage on site, primarily to handle repairs. Its own used rum and brandy barrels have recently been pressed into service to finish single malts.

“Being a small distillery there are a whole lot of things we can do personally,” say Chairman, Neel. “Mr. Surrinder does the vatting himself and a panel approves it.” Recently, Mr. Surrinder, as Neel calls master distiller, Surrinder Kumar, has begun experimenting with locally made peated-style barley that imparts a beguiling ashy flavour to the whisky.

Other recent developments at Amrut include introducing their single malt into the home market. It took a bit of a search, but eventually I found a bottle in a tiny Bangalore liquor store, otherwise crammed with Scotch and ‘IMFL.’ As more people learn of Amrut and whisky tourists begin making the trek to Bangalore, a visitor’s centre is being contemplated.

Plans for a second distillery in the northern part of Karnataka state are also on the drawing board.” It’s very difficult to expand here in Bangalore,” Neel tells me, “because of a lack of space.” He’s proud of Amrut’s accomplishments, “Personally it is very satisfying to be the first in India to do single malt. Doing something different has been the most satisfying thing. It’s like going to the Olympics and getting a medal,” he says.” Our distillery is a piece of art for us.”

Of the whisky itself, connoisseurs around the world seem to agree.


Tasting notes



Amrut

Herald 62.4%
18 months additional maturation in Helgoland, Germany. Nutmeg and fennel with butterscotch and sharp hints of green apples. Teasing cloves and slight tannic pull.

Amrut

Double Cask 46%
Rich in exotic fruits and citric flair with hints of ginger. Bourbonesque vanilla and a dash of caramel. At 7½ Years Old, the oldest Amrut ever.

Amrut

Portonova 62.1% ABV
Raisins, fragrant tobacco, icing sugar, anise, cloves, candied orange peel, strawberry juice, and hints of leather. Feels like rye. Huge and complex.


Production details




  • Indian and UK malted barley

  • Six 10,000-litre (2,200 gallon) stainless steel fermenters

  • Two unique, conical 5,000-litre (1,100 gallon) copper pot stills with copper condensers

  • New and used ex-bourbon barrels

  • About 4½ years ageing

  • 10,000 six-bottle cases per year

  • Sold in 20 countries




Info



Indian Whisky Oddities

Think you’ve seen everything whiskydom has to offer? Visit India and you’re in for a surprise. A packaging surprise that is. Easy to carry single-serving tetrapak drink boxes and vinyl breast-pocket pouches of local blends are de rigueur with local drinkers.

Lalbagh Botanical Gardens

Amrut may bring the whisky explorer to Bangalore, but no visit is complete without a day in Lalbagh, the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Built in 1760 the gardens cover 240 verdant acres of meticulously kept tropical gardens and peaceful nooks. Climbing gentle steps, hand carved into a 300-million-year-old, 20-acre granite rock, provides panoramic views of Bangalore, India’s wealthiest and cleanest city below.

The Biere Club

There are more breweries in Bangalore than anywhere else in India, but there is only one craft brewery and pub. Indeed, when Arvind Raju and his sister Meenakshi opened the Biere Club in May of 2011 it became only the third brew pub in all of India. I asked why the pub was nearly empty when I visited on a Sunday afternoon. Apparently business was so brisk in the opening months that the taps often ran dry, disappointing many a would-be customer. The siblings are now in the process of adding a second brew kettle so that Heriot-Watt University trained Kenyan brewmaster, Daniel Wambua, can keep up with demand. In addition to his Biere Club lager and ale, Wambua also brews a rich and robust stout, a crispy clean wheat beer, and seasonal fruit-flavoured specialty beers. Whisky travellers wearying of Indian fare can enjoy well-portioned servings of North African food. Lamb and fish are specialties. The hoppy lager is full-flavoured and fresh, the ale, my favourite, is mouth filling and vaguely bitter. Tasting samples let you try before you buy.