Whisky Connosr

Destination Bangalore: Amrut Distillery

By Dominic Roskrow

India is whisky crazy but it's never made its mark in the international market. Until now. so where does Amrut fit in to the Indian whisky story? Dominic travelled to Bangalore to find out...

They warned me about the traffic in India but for about 15 minutes it's a cruise. Then without warning the road becomes narrower, the pavements start to resemble building sites and it all kicks off big time.

It's total mayhem and it's five o'clock in the morning. Welcome to India…

There are motorbikes - lots of them - rickshaws, buses and trucks, and they swing wildly across the road in a blaze of beeping horns. The rules seem to be do whatever you have to do as long as it doesn't include the brake pedal. We're in the outer lane one moment, over taking on the hard shoulder the next, crashing through pot holes and flying over significant drops in the road. A gap appears between two trucks and our driver goes for it. Trouble is, a pram wouldn't get through it. A motorbike swerves to avoid us and then suddenly we're hurling towards a set of headlights coming in thee opposite direction.

This is confusing because I thought we were on one side of a dual carriageway. Apparently we are, but the rickshaw facing us wants to go the other way, even if the road doesn't permit it. Our driver hits the horn again - and the rickshaw gives in first, swerving off the road.

It's total mayhem and it's five o'clock in the morning. Welcome to India… My love of Amrut is no secret - for five years now the distillery has occupied a permanent place in my Champions League top four world whisky producers and no other world distillery - indeed very few other distilleries period - have offered such a consistent run of excellent whiskies.

But I was brought up surrounded by Indian people and culture, and adore it. I am fascinated by India's colour, energy and diversity.I watch Bollywood films for fun.So an offer to visit Amrut distillery to taste the next wave of world beating malts was a no brainer.

Our man in Bangalore

I have just two days here - one to catch up with sleep (yeah, right) and then explore a bit before dinner with my hosts, the second to visit the distillery Exploring Bangalore is a blast. My gumball rally of an arrival has been replaced in daylight by gridlock. Bangalore is a traffic jam on a building site. It is hot, dirty, noisy, polluted, and shambolic. And utterly, utterly bewitching. Bangalore is everything India is reputed to be. A mass of contradictions, of shocking ugliness and aching beauty, extreme poverty and stunning opulence, often within the same ten metres. Fruit and vegetable sellers trade in the shade of large, leafy trees, while dirt and smoke billow up from the roads. Groups of scruffy unemployed men stand next to glass-fronted designer shops selling Prada and Louis Vuitton. Walls carry signs saying 'don't urinate here' next to stores with the latest Sony laptops piled 20 high. Groups of youths peer through the window where a television is showing India play Sri Lanka at cricket, while security guards - and every plaza and bank has one - prevent them from coming in. There's no middle ground in Bangalore. Beautiful glass fronted buildings with air-conditioned rooms and polished stone floors offer goods, services, retail experiences and food every bit as expensive as London. Mostly though, India is poor and cheap, and beautiful silk saris cost under £25.

Same with whisky. You want single malt whisky or even Amrut? Then pay through the nose. Local whisky - sold in 180 millilitre bottles - costs pennies.

Bangalore is a blast on the senses, a festival of sound, sight sand smell. It's a carnival of colour.

Enough of the tourism, though - time for business…

Amrut Distillery was established in 1948 and has strong military links, for many years supplying cheap liquor to the army. The Jagdales, father Neelakanta and his son Riki, who runs the business now, live in south Bangalore where the walls of the living room are adorned with pictures of relatives who served in the British army in the past.

For more than 50 years the distillery served local needs by supplying cheap spirits for the local market.

"The distillery was founded by my grandfather and expanded by my father," says Riki. "The distillery makes very fine brandy with a locally produced grapes which are too high in tannin to make wine with.

"The market for whisky is huge in India and we make lots of blended whisky to service that market and it was costing too much to import barley from Scotland so we started making whisky with our own grain.

"Then when I went to Newcastle to study I had the chance to do a thesis looking in to whether it would be possible to make Indian whisky and to sell it in the United Kingdom. It started from there. Ashok and I met in Newcastle and although there were some problems early on.

The folk at Amrut make no apology for molasses made blended 'whisky'.

"You have seen and understand India," someone remarks. "We need grain to feed people. Whisky is not important and rightly it's not a priority. We use what we have."

Before we visit Amrut proper we take a detour to the old offices - which are set to be demolished as Bangalore expands and grows. There's a sense of history in its dark wood-panelled rooms. But needs must.

The 'new' distillery is a revelation. The reception room, with pots of different grains and a display of the distillery's bottles is no different to others across the world. Newspaper features with pictures of Jim Murray are also framed here. But when we walk over to the still room,it's a different story. A hotchpotch collection of stills are squeezed in to a small room and in the middle of them the Indian made pot stills take pride of place.

The operation is highly labour-intensive and a bottling room is full of women, half in a uniform, the other half in bright saris and dresses, manually packing bottles."We have casual staff and full time staff and they dress differently," Neelakanta explains. "We have a duty to provide as many jobs as we can and so this is the way it's done."

But the true difference between Amrut and scores of other distilleries is the quality of the whisky on offer. I am joined by the two men responsible for the distilling, and the five of us taste 10 to 15 samples in pretty rapid succession. Some are destined for future bottlings of Fusion, others will end up as single cask bottlings. Ashok is keen that I don't give too much away but suffice to say that there are whiskies finished in both sherry and American oak that are rich, dripping in vanilla, citrus, and honey. There are some stunning peated whiskies and some ageing well beyond the four years that Amrut is often bottled at. The dry conditions mean that The Angel's Share can reach 25 per cent even in this time.

It's stunning highly impressive stuff, and is ample evidence that Amrut is going from strength to strength. Talking to the distillers here it's clear that they take what they do extremely seriously. When I ask them whether they have made a rod for their own backs by setting their standards so high they just smile.Before we return to the city and a wonderful dinner in the Jagdale home we visit an Indian drinking bar. It's just getting dark when we arrive, and trade is brisk. The bar has no seats and is a dirty stone room with a wooden shelf round the edge. Men - always men - buy whisky from a bottle store to one side - normally in a 180ml glass bottle - pour it in to a glass and knock it back like it's a glass of water. Then they leave.

"That's why India consumes so much whisky," says Ashok - and it is an eye opener.

I have an early flight the next day so dinner is finished early but not before I've met Riki's sister, brother in law, and his young son and niece. Their hospitality and politeness is overwhelming and I'm sorry to leave. But not before a text arrives from Jim Murray, sending his regards to the Jagdales and asking about monkeys in the still room. I'm bemused but my hosts burst out laughing."We tried to get them out when Jim visited but there were sill couple left," says Ashok. "He was amused by this.

"You know these have been amazing years for us. Jim Murray did so much for us and he was able to visit here. And we wanted you to come and see the distillery for yourself to understand better what we do."

I do - and I feel honoured.