Tag Archives: Indian whisky

Indian renaissance

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.

Prestige Feb 2016 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige Feb 2016 Whisky p2

As it appeared – p2.

 

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Indian whisky part 2

Finally I’m getting pen to paper so to speak, after promising the rest of this review some time ago.  Last week was extremely rough, and this week has been a blur.  I find myself in China, about to return home, and running on the last fumes of my energy after multiple flights, countless hours on the road, and a bit of business thrown in for good measure.  I’ll try to make some sense nonetheless.

Amrut Fusion derives its name from the malted barley that is used in its mashbill.  A portion of it is sourced from Scotland and the remainder is local, from the foothills of the Himalayas, thus a “fusion” of West and East.  The former is peated, and this is evident in the flavour, which exhibits a delicious, fragrant, gentle smoke.  I’ve tried to establish the origin of this malt but there’s no specific information about it.  It’s a personal gripe of mine that whisky makers are often purposefully vague if not altogether evasive when releasing specifications about their product.  But more on this some other time (soon).  The best I can do is hazard the guess that the malt comes from an inland source – I couldn’t pick up any of the notes indicative of coastal peat.

The ingredients are a notable feature, but despite the name billing they’re strictly support cast.  The ageing process is what’s creating the buzz around this product.  Fusion is 5 years matured but tastes like a whisky far better and longer acquainted with a cask.  Some punters have even suggested that it’s equivalent in maturity to an 18yo whisky.  I’m not sure how one would go about coming to such a specific conclusion, but it makes the point.  Fusion has a complexity that’s typically only found in whiskies more advanced in years; it’s a prodigy.  This unusual occurrence is due to the prevailing climate (at altitude in Bangalore, where the distillery is located) which is hot and dry pretty much year round, thereby accelerating maturation.

This may seem like a boon, and in this case there’s no doubt that it is, but it does comes at a cost and with some risk.  Evaporation is far higher than in Scotland, so annual losses are significant.  It’s also all too easy to overcook the whisky.  Leave it a few months too long and it’ll likely become excessively wooded.

The risks of rapid maturation

Amrut however has graciously paid the angels their due and walked the fine line with great poise.  It is simply beautifully balanced.  Smoke, biscuity malt, barley fruitiness, and toffee – they’re all swirling around in there, alternately brash and subtle, jostling boisterously for position one moment, in an orderly line the next.  Fusion is clearly Scotch inspired but also somehow not Scotch.  And through it all there’s only the faintest hint of oak – the turbo charged maturation clearly evident, but felt and not “seen”, like gravity, ever present and holding everything together.

This whisky has a certain individuality of style that’s perceptible yet difficult to describe.  Perhaps, and hopefully, it is the birth of something wonderful, of the chosen one that will bring balance to the force and lead the world’s largest whisky-loving nation into the fold.    I’ll drink to that…as soon as I get back to my remaining half-bottle that is.

The Skywalker of whiskies?

My flight is boarding, home beckons, so farewell for now.  Until the next time may the dram be with you.

Indian whisky part 1

A while back I pulled out both pistols and let loose at the Indian whisky industry – see Whisky and all.  Today I’m starting off by reloading.  I’m a say-what-you-mean, do-what-you-say kind of person…or at least I try to be.  So I find it intrinsically offensive, nay incensing, that these guys are bottling cheap liquor – much of it made from molasses, unaged, and artificially flavoured – and calling it whisky.

Indian barley

The situation is of course a source of some controversy, for two reasons:

Firstly, this Indian product cannot be sold in the EU (and elsewhere) under the name whisky, despite the vigorous protests of whisky-magnate Vijay Mallya, and others of his ilk.  The basis for their objections seem spurious to me, justified more by their obvious agenda than by any logic.  A name is important.  It is the source of identity, and the means by which we define the world around us.  In a sense names are the foundation of all meaning in the world.  Indian “whisky” is a con-job and an identity theft.

Secondly, foreign whisky imported into India is taxed at astronomical levels, flouting the agreements and the general spirit of the World Trade Organisation.  Supposedly this has its roots in the cultural attitude towards liquor in India.  Whilst I don’t have enough insight into the subject to convincingly dispute this point of view, I can’t help but wonder.  It sounds like a conveniently nebulous cover story.  India is the largest whisky market in the world, and it’s also the world’s most corrupt democracy – connect the dots.  I’m picturing Indian politicians in upmarket villas…and to add insult to injury they’re certainly not drinking Bagpiper.

There’s little incentive to make genuine, quality whisky in this market, given that one would be competing in the same arena as opposition with a significant cost advantage, and yet the talk of the whisky town for the last year has been none other than an Indian whisky (note no inverted commas).  So much for preconceived notions then.  This whisky has been garnering awards and plaudits from the four corners, such is its merit.  It is so far removed from its cousins that it’s insulting to imply any familial relationship whatsoever.  They may share geographical origins but that’s where the similarities end.

The distillery is Amrut, and the whisky is Amrut Fusion.  It’s a glimpse into the future.  I managed to get hold of a bottle and before I could blink half of it was gone, my guests (Indian whisky?!?) making light work of their scepticism.

Surf over to WoW tomorrow for my review of Amrut Fusion.