A case of reverse snobbery

prince mathews thomas | Updated on January 24, 2018

New high: Amrut Distilleries on Mysore Road, near Bengaluru, was for decades manufacturing rum and whisky brands that were popular in Army canteens before it turned its attention to premium single malt

Raising the bar: Neelakanta Rao Jagdale, chairman and managing director of Amrut Distilleries, wants to familiarise his customers with the ‘single malt culture’. Photo G R N Somashekar   -  BL


As connoisseurs toast a made-in-India single malt that first found fame in whisky heartland Scotland, Bengaluru-based Amrut Distilleries tastes success in a maturing home market

‘Please maintain silence, whisky is sleeping.’

The signage outside a warehouse of Amrut Distilleries, an hour’s drive from Bengaluru, catches one off-guard. Inside it is dark and quiet, as if to make doubly sure that the whisky in the barrels — over a thousand of them — enjoy undisturbed sleep. Made of oak and imported from the US, the barrels are stacked on giant wooden shelves. A note nailed to a shelf declares the room temperature is 28°C and the humidity, 64 per cent.

“The higher the humidity and the lower the temperature, the less will the whisky maturing in the barrels evaporate,” informs M Meyyappan, Director Technical. In Scotland, such whisky lost to evaporation is called angel’s share, he adds.

He calls over an attendant, who uses a long-handled mug to draw out some alcohol that has been ‘sleeping’ for four years and pours it into a wine glass. Meyyappan covers the glass with his palm and swirls it. After the whisky has washed the inside of the glass, the senior executive smells it before taking a sip. Closing his eyes, he raises his chin just a bit, as if waiting for the spirit to hit his senses. Seconds later he reopens his eyes and smiles. Handing over the glass, he instructs, “Sip a little and swirl it around your tongue to discover the flavours. Do you get an oaky vanilla tone? That comes from the barrel. And smokiness? That is the peat barley from Scotland.”

His colleague K Prakash, general manager of production and quality assurance, explains how the taste buds work. “The back of the tongue is sensitive to bitter tastes, the sides to sourness and the tip of the tongue comes alive to anything sweet. That is why you need to swirl a single malt whisky around your tongue.” To that Meyyappan adds, “A single malt whisky should be savoured. You should take about half an hour to sip 30ml.”

Decidedly not the drink for bingeing. The single malt whisky is elitist — few can afford it. While braggarts flaunt it, only a connoisseur can savour and expound on its tones and the intricacies of the barrel in which it matured.

In a market like India, where few whiskies will actually qualify as ‘whisky’ owing to unchecked use of artificial flavours and insufficient maturation, single malt is rarer still. The premium spirit makes up just five per cent of the Indian whisky market, the largest in the world at 1.5 billion litres a year.

Indian-made premier liquor

Neelakanta Rao Jagdale is unfazed by the market (or lack of it). He has good reasons to be. The second-generation promoter of Amrut Distilleries has tasted success where no other liquor entrepreneur in India has managed to. Eleven years ago, he and his son Rakshit launched the Amrut brand in the very home of single malt — Scotland. In 2010, one of its variants, Amrut Fusion, was ranked the third finest whisky in the world by Jim Murray in his Whisky Bible.

The high praise from Murray helped Jagdale break into the domestic market. This year he hopes to sell 20 per cent more than the 15,000 cases of single malt he sold in 2014. Half of them were bought in India and the rest in the 38 countries the company is present in.

Amrut’s single malt variants are priced from ₹3,000 to over ₹7,000 (750ml bottle) in India. Two years ago, the company came out with a special variant — Amrut 10 Year Old Greedy Angels — for Jagdale’s 60th birthday; the limited edition of 320 bottles cost over ₹60,000 each. They sold out in two days.

“The whisky market in India may have shrunk a little this year. But the single malt segment is still growing, albeit slowly. We hope to sell 20,000 cases this year,” says Jagdale. Apart from selling more, the 62-year-old wants to familiarise his customers with the ‘single malt culture.’

The company website prominently displays an invitation to visit its distillery on Mysore Road. Just a day earlier, Swedish connoisseurs had come calling. Meyyappan, who joined the company in 1972, the same year as Jagdale, is also one of its two master blenders. He and Prakash accompany visitors on their tour of the distillery, patiently explaining how barley is converted into malt, which is ground, brewed, fermented, distilled and transferred to the barrels for maturing. The tour ends on a high note — a tasting of the single malts.

“Amrut is a genuine product story. It is the first of its kind from the Indian market to do well overseas,” says Santosh Kanekar, former marketing head of the Indian arm of multinational Diageo and a liquor industry consultant. “In India, people mostly buy single malt for two reasons — as a status symbol or for the love of it. With Amrut, there is a case of reverse snobbery, of drinking an Indian single malt that first became popular in Scotland.”

Driven by necessity

Jagdale’s corporate office in Bengaluru’s Rajajinagar is nondescript. But it has an important legacy. It was once owned by Nobel laureate CV Raman. In the conference room is a citation from a senior Army officer thanking the company for sending 600 cases of free rum to soldiers fighting in the Kargil War with Pakistan. Close by is a framed newspaper clipping of an interview with Jim Murray praising Amrut Fusion.

Jagdale’s personal office in the building was earlier used by Raman. A table on one side displays Amrut Single Malt. A shelf on the other side holds books, miniature idols of gods and goddesses, and bottles of whisky. There is also a tiny box labelled BeeKwick. “It is to treat deficiency of vitamin B12. We produce it under our family foundation,” says Jagdale.

The interest in pharmaceuticals is not incidental. Jagdale’s father, JN Radhakrishna, who founded the company in 1948, was “70 per cent chemist and 30 per cent distiller.” Jagdale was 24 when Radhakrishna passed away, forcing the youngster to take charge. It was while spearheading a group company, Rewdale Precision Tools, a joint venture with a Swiss firm, that Jagdale realised the importance of a good product, irrespective of its geography. “There was no problem in selling an Indian product in Europe as long as it was of good quality and was according to the specifications of the client,” he reasons.

Years later, in the late 1990s, an opportunity arose to test that belief. The family had gone through a ‘reorganisation’ after the demise of Jagdale’s mother. The pharmaceuticals business went to his brother (that company, Jagdale Industries, was in the news last year for selling its popular brand ORS-L to Johnson & Johnson for nearly ₹700 crore), while the precision tools business was managed by his sister’s family. Although Amrut Distilleries was doing well with its mass brands in rum and whisky, which were popular in the Army’s Canteen Stores Department, a problem was nevertheless brewing.

Multinational Seagrams had introduced Royal Stag, a whisky that had a blend of Indian grain spirits and imported Scotch malts. It was the first brand in the Indian market that didn’t use artificial flavours. Royal Stag’s runaway success made a dent on Amrut’s bestseller Prestige Blended Malt Whisky. “We had to reinvent. Single malt whisky was unknown,” recounts Jagdale. As the matured spirit piled up in the warehouse, Jagdale decided to experiment with single malt whisky. “It was an inevitable need to continue in the business,” he adds. Today, in a corner of the distillery lies a small mash tun (a vessel for mashing malt in hot water) that was used by Jagdale in the initial days to test single malt, a long way before Amrut was introduced in Scotland.

That happened when Rakshit was doing a project for his management course in the UK’s Newcastle University in 2001. Jagdale, eager to test the single malt he had brewed, asked his son to supply a sample to the local pub. “It was in Pot Still, a 145-year-old pub in Glasgow, that we first tested Amrut single malt whisky. Those who blind-tasted it compared the whisky to the best found in Scotland,” recounts Rakshit. Three years later, Jagdale launched his brand at an Indian restaurant called Café India in Glasgow.

Single malt from the Himalayas

Jagdale is now sitting pretty. Amrut Distilleries clocked ₹272 crore last year, selling 5.2 million cases. Back in 1972, when Jagdale joined his father’s business, the company had sold 80,000 cases. “It is not a dramatic increase. But we are fine with it,” says the man, whose interest and promotion of swimming is well-known in Bengaluru. Rakshit represented the country in the Asian Age Group Championships in 1989.

Jagdale is the president of the Bengaluru-based Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre, a public-private initiative that has trained more than one lakh youngsters. Well-known swimmers such as Arjuna Awardees Nisha Millet and Rehan Poncha have fine-tuned their strokes here. The Jagdale family’s foundation also builds swimming pools.

Meanwhile at the distillery, the experiments never stop. The latest is a rye whisky popular in the US and Canada. The facility itself will be expanded. Jagdale owns a four-acre plot next door; a new distillery and warehouses will come up to cater to the increasing demand for Amrut single malt whisky. “We just need to keep sure that the quality never dips,” he says.

Jagdale’s focus now is to broaden the single malt portfolio. The entrepreneur wants to sell more but is constrained by the limited capacity of the Mysore Road facility. Last year, he was scouting for a location in Himachal Pradesh to build a new distillery in the lap of the Himalayas. “Each place has its own flavour. A malt whisky from the Himalayas would be interesting,” says the Chairman and Managing Director, who likes to round off each day with two pegs of single malt. “I keep trying out different single malts. Everyone likes to do that… I think we can develop single malts from different parts of the country, including the north-east.”

Published on July 10, 2015

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