ThatÔÇÖs the spirit
Bangalore-based Amrut Distilleries produces one of the finest single malt whiskies in the world, and has ambitious plans for expansion, as Rakshit Jagdale explains to Gay Sutton.
When you think of single malt whisky you tend to think of the highlands of Scotland: rugged heather covered mountains, peat bogs and incredibly fresh spring water that imparts its own unique quality. You donÔÇÖt tend to think of the heat, colour and exuberance of India. Yet connoisseurs around the world are beginning to realise how wrong that impression is. Amrut single malt whiskies have been making an appearance in specialist shops all across the European Union, are now breaking into the markets of South Africa and Australia and are gaining a reputation for quality.
Spirits have, of course, been distilled in India for many generations. Amrut Distilleries is a family run business formed just after the independence of India in1948. Beginning in a small way in Bangalore, a major milestone came in 1961 when the company began to supply the Armed Forces of India.┬á
Today, Amrut has two distinct product streams. The mainstay of the business is the production of around 2.8 million cases of rumÔÇöIndia is the second largest producer of sugar cane after BrazilÔÇöone million cases of brandy and 400,000 cases of blended whisky for the domestic market. The majority of this is sold in the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala, but the Armed Forces continues to be an important customer, being the only truly pan-Indian distribution channel.┬á
The second product streamÔÇöa range of high quality single malt whiskies which are purely for the export marketÔÇöis setting India firmly on the whisky making map. Confident in the quality of the product and undaunted by the big names in the world market, Amrut decided on a bold approach to the introduction of its export whisky: it took it directly to Scotland. ÔÇ£We launched Amrut, IndiaÔÇÖs first indigenously produced single malt whisky, in Glasgow on 24 August 2004,ÔÇØ explains executive director Rakshit Jagdale, grandson of the companyÔÇÖs founder, Radhakrishna Jagdale. ÔÇ£Since then we have expanded our sales into the whole of western Europe. Most of the EU states import our product.ÔÇØ
There are currently six whiskies in the single malt range, including two cask strength and two peated versions, and these retail on the European market for anything between ┬ú26 and ┬ú39 a bottle. One of the six has also been awarded one of the industryÔÇÖs highest accolades, cementing AmrutÔÇÖs reputation around the globe. Launched onto the market just six months ago, Amrut Fusion has been rated the third finest single malt whisky in the world by Jim Murray, the worldÔÇÖs foremost authority on whisky. His 2010 edition of the Whisky Bible went on sale last this month and Amrut Fusion was rated very highly, scoring 97 out of 100.
Whisky making of this quality requires considerable knowledge and experience. ÔÇ£It is more of an art than a science, and it only comes with mature experience,ÔÇØ Jagdale explains. ÔÇ£The people who handle the malt whisky at our distillery in Bangalore have worked with us for a minimum of 22 years, and some have been with us up to 37 years.ÔÇØ
The flavour of the whisky is due to a rich combination of things, all of which are governed by experienced staff. ÔÇ£Predominantly the flavour of the whisky has to do with the barleyÔÇöeverything comes from the grainÔÇöthe way you distil the single malt, and the way you mature it.ÔÇØ
The barley used by Amrut is grown in the northern Indian states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, where the winter temperatures are cold, often frosty at night, which is ideal for growing grain. And because the grain plays such a vital role in the quality of the whisky, Amrut has built up long-term sustained buying relationships with its suppliers. Quality is everything, and strict quality controls ensure that only the best malted product is shipped from northern India to the two distilleries each month.
The whisky is constantly supervised during the maturation process, but selection of casks plays a critical role, too. ÔÇ£We use a combination of new American oak casks, and ex bourbon and Scotch casks, and itÔÇÖs very important that we hand select our casks before we mature them,ÔÇØ Jagdale says.
Much has been written and said about the vital role water plays in the character of whisky, and Jagdale agrees. ÔÇ£If whisky is bottled at, say, 40 to 45 per cent, then the remaining 55 to 60 per cent is water, and the quality of that water is essential. We use bore water from a well at our farm eight kilometres from the distillery. This is 100 per cent pure,ÔÇØ he continues. ÔÇ£The truth about water in the distilling business is that it has to be demineralised. Even in Scotland, water contains minerals such as sodium and magnesium, and this has to be stripped from the water to make it absolutely neutral so that it does not impart any obnoxious odour into the whisky. It is then virtually tasteless.ÔÇØ
The final element in the production of a fine whisky is the bottle. The neck of the bottle is very important, and the quality of the glass essential. Amrut bottles its products at the Bangalore plant and six other bottling and warehousing facilities, but the bottles are procured from the UK. ÔÇ£Malt whisky needs a T-cork bottleÔÇöone that has a special neck. And unfortunately the glass industry here in India hasnÔÇÖt been able to produce it. We have been talking with them for three years and weÔÇÖre not happy with the quality of the glass they produce. ItÔÇÖs unfortunate but our packaging has to be world-class.ÔÇØ
Demand for Amrut products has been rising rapidly, and this year the distilleries have been operating throughout the year. The single malts are now available in 18 countries around the globe and the drive to increase exports is continuing. The products were launched into South Africa a year and half ago and into Australia this August. ÔÇ£And we will be launching Amrut in the US in December or January. We were trying to catch the Christmas market, but I think weÔÇÖve just missed the boat for that.ÔÇØ For the export market, the focus has been on selling to specialist whisky shops around the world, but the company intends to take its products into the mainstream and sell them through the large retail chains.
The main focus for Amrut Distilleries, though, has always been its domestic market and Amrut has plans for serious expansion here. However, the route to market in India is complex. ÔÇ£India is highly fragmented. There are 33 statesÔÇövery like the countries in the EUÔÇöand each state has its own alcohol policy. The states also differ in their distribution methods. Some operate as an open free market, some are government controlled, so we sell our product to government depots. Other states are a mixture of the two.ÔÇØ
The short-term three year plan is to break into the market in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi, and then focus on the north-eastern and north-western states. ÔÇ£My long-term vision for the company is to have a pan-Indian presence for our domestically produced spirits and we have a target of making it available in another eight states over the next 10 years.ÔÇØ
If the expansion of the previous five years is anything to go by, we will soon be seeing Amrut whisky on our supermarket shelves; and the rum, brandy and blended whiskies will be making an appearance in markets across India.