From pariah to performer. PATRICK LECLEZIO reviews the two brands that are rehabilitating the reputation of Indian whisky.
First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2016 edition).
Ahead of a recent trip to India I had it in my mind to secure some samples for a report on Indian whisky. Unfortunately this proved difficult; I was informed that transporting liquor across certain state borders – in this case from Goa and Bangalore to Delhi – is prohibited. The problem was eventually resolved using a more circuitous route (via the UK!), thanks to the gracious people at Paul John and Amrut, but the experience gave me a little bit of first-hand insight into the contorted nature of Indian liquor legislation. Their complicated system of national and state regulations has engineered a bizarre situation where the majority of people in the world’s largest whisky drinking market don’t drink whisky, and can’t drink whisky (at a reasonable price).
India consumes some 1.5 billion litres of “whisky” per year, hugely in excess of any other country. The inverted commas however account for the fact that most of it isn’t actually whisky – anywhere other than in India. A glance at South African law for instance would reveal a stipulation that for whisky to be sold as whisky in this country it would need to “be produced from a mash of grain”. Whisky by historical tradition, by overwhelming convention, and by regulatory definition in most countries – as we’re seen with our local example – must be made from grains. In India the bulk of local whisky is made from molasses, which is subsequently blended with various proportions of grain whisky, depending on the particular brand and its level of quality and premium-ness. “You will get the alcohol but none of the flavours,” said Bill Lumsden, an industry pioneer and the master distiller at Glenmorangie, of the molasses spirit in Indian whisky. This is a simplistic analysis of course – there are other concerns, maturation for instance -but it’s sufficient to make the point that Indian whisky by any objective measure is largely substandard. The buttresses that keeps these whiskies afloat, and protected from redress by healthy competition, are the regulations to which I’d earlier alluded, primarily a set of exorbitant tariffs which violate World Trade Organisation rules, and without which that local industry would collapse.
This scenario is bleak for many reasons. It’s costing the country both economically in lost revenue and blunted potential, and socially in that whisky lovers are being deceived and short changed. I don’t think I’m being dramatic in suggesting that this is probably the single biggest issue in the whisky arena today. Negotiations have been ongoing for some time, but I would imagine that the scale of entrenchment makes progress difficult. It might seem like a horse-before-cart, pie-in-the-sky prognosis but things will probably change only if India cultivates quality brands that can stand up to their international peers.
This kind of a solution is some way off for the mainstream, but faint ripples have started to appear. In the Bangalore based Amrut first, and more recently the Goa based Paul John, India has two distilleries producing world class, genuine whisky. This is exciting not only for India – primarily at this stage as an affirmation of their ability to go toe-to-toe with the best – but also for us, for whisky drinkers globally; with their emergence we have access to an exciting, dynamic new style of whisky.
My first experience of Amrut was of the ground-breaking Fusion – arguably the whisky that made its name. A fusion indeed, of Indian grown barley, with Islay peated malt, it is a delightful whisky, explicitly smoky but not overpoweringly so, leaving plenty of space for a plethora of other rich, spicy, fruity flavours. I made the mistake of serving my first bottle some five years ago at my birthday party. It was smacked out of its brief existence in short order, such was the immediate rapport that it struck. This time I intend to savour the new bottle in more fitting tribute to its indisputable merits.
The style of Fusion, and indeed the others that I examined, the Amrut Single Malt, the Paul John Brilliance, and the Paul John Edited, has been cast in the mould of Scotch single malt, with a similar-ish palette of flavours. The critical point of difference is maturation. Both Amrut and Paul John are produced in the oven that is Southern India – resulting in an intense, accelerated ageing process. These malts, ranging from three to five years old, would not have been ready to bottle if matured in Scotland, or in most other whisky producing climates. It’s a benefit and a hindrance though, the bonus of good whisky fast tempered by the unlikelihood (or, dare I say it – impossibility) of turning out anything old and superpremium. Quick to cook, quick to burn (and evaporate!), with a much reduced sweet spot. This though is the distinctive feature which will define Indian whisky as style of its own amongst aficionados.
The Amrut Single Malt and the Paul John Brilliance are solid, quaffable single malts – abundant with the vanilla and honey typical of bourbon casks. Mostly I was surprised by their poise and balance. Surely, I thought, there’s got to be a cost to the speed; but if there is it’s not apparent in these two whiskies. They may not be the fullest and richest, or the most complex, but they’re well-executed and interesting…and well worth exploring. The Paul John Edited, like the Amrut Fusion, is peated, although more lightly peated, but it’s travelled a different and imaginative road to get there. Fusion uses Scottish peated malt, Paul John uses Indian barley malted using Scottish peat. I can’t say that I could ascribe a difference to the influence of each – noting that the peat used may be different too – but it’ll be fun spending some time with both to try to identify it. Regardless, the added dimension introduced by the peating propels this variant from solid to superb, as gentle smoke wisps amongst streaks of chocolate-y sweetness.
If ever a country needed a whisky redemption, there’s no doubt that it is India – because of its diabolical rotgut (I say this relative to what it should be) and because of its importance. In response Amrut and Paul John have delivered and delivered decisively. For the country’s whisky drinkers the road may be long and hard, and the destination uncertain, but the potential is quite conclusively there. Whatever happens it seems that the rest of us can look forward to some fine Indian single malt, and who knows what else, in the years to come. May the dram be with you, and all.