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World Whisky Masters – Amrut

By Dominic Roskrow

The Amrut story reads like a Bollywood film script. It’s got all the key ingredients for the big Indian film treatment: a classic story of rags to riches, of despair to hope to exhilaration and of perseverance in adversity. It’s a roller coaster ride covering the battle to succeed through a heady mix of skill, passion, endurance and luck.

Amrut the Movie would cover a decade during which a small whisky seed has grown in to an enterprising business. The sequel – covering the next few years – may well see the Bangalore-based business become a world force in whisky.

The Amrut story reads like a Bollywood film script

And to think it started just a decade ago as an experiment by a Newcastle based Indian student to see if it was possible to launch a new whisky in to the United Kingdom market place.

Amrut’s early fumblings weren’t encouraging. Packaged in the sort of Indian themed chintz which is meant to look sophisticated but comes over as cheap and tacky, the first four releases – standard strength and cask strength peated and non peated whisky, were aimed at Indian restaurants particularly in Scotland – with limited success.

The management team at Amrut admits that they got close to giving up. And then they had a rethink, and in the process they changed the perception of Indian whisky forever.

India is the world’s biggest whisky market. Diageo has estimated that the country’s top five brands sells more whisky in India than Diageo does in the whole world.

But much of Indian whisky is low quality at best, not whisky at all at worst, and in the main is a confusing mass of Indian-Scotch hybrid blends and cheap local spirits.

But Amrut’s single malt takes a different path. Distilled for the Indian market as a cheaper alternative to importing malt for the company’s blends, it uses Indian barley.

Amrut hit pay gold when it decided to move away from Scottish single malt and go its own route. Like Mackmyra before it, it has succeeded by making great single malt which is distinctively not Scotch. And it’s done it by mixing barleys, experimenting with barrels, maturing its whiskies in different climates and different continents, and mining malt whisky themes which are outside the Scottish remit.

Two moments changed the way the world looked at Indian whisky, and sat up and took note of what was happening at Amrut. One was when whisky pub The Pot Still in Glasgow put an Amrut malt in to a blind whisky tasting and it stole the show. The other was when Jim Murray put an Amrut release among the very top scoring whiskies in his 2010 Whisky Bible.

That was the end of chapter one. Chapter two began when Amrut Fusion was the first Masters winner in the 2011 World Whisky Masters, organised by me for The Spirits Business. Fusion combines spirit made with unpeated Indian barley with peated malt from Scotland. It is stunning and is matured for little more than three years.

This Autumn Amrut releases no less than four special malts, two of them in very restricted quantities.The company’s ability to think outside the box, to play with all the environmental, distilling and maturation levers at its disposal and to make great whisky mean this story is going to run and run.

Random Irrelevant Fact

One of the fascinating aspects of the development of potential superpowers China and India is how their internal whisky markets will develop. China has no history of whisky but has indicated that it will recognise the standards of the Scotch Whisky Association and the EEC, and recognise grains and minimum maturation times. India has a huge whisky market and an involvement with whisky stretching back to the Raj and the strong cultural links with Britain. But much of its ‘whisky’ is of dubious quality, matured for short periods of time or made with molasses. India does respect Scotland though and giving quality Scotch to your father as a Diwali gift is seen as the ultimate symbol of prestige – and so important are iconic brands such as Johnnie Walker to the Indian market that when some Indian drinkers were killed by a poisonous faked batch of Johhnie Walker, Diageo published adverts in Hindi and Urdu in British trade papers to reassure the market.