Whisky Squad #35 – The Subcontinental Flavour Onslaught
It’s been a busy month. Or so. However out of a combination of a (misplaced and unrequired) sense of duty and the fact that this blog is increasingly a replacement for my rapidly deteriorating memory it’s time for some more Whisky Squad magic. Way back in April (about a month as I write) we hit the mammoth third session within a four week period, breaking out very much for pastures new. Eschewing both our usual pubby surroundings and the chilly lands to the north of Hadrian’s wall we gathered at Dishoom on St Martin’s Lane for a run through some Indian whiskies with Icons of Whisky Brand Ambassador of the Year 2012 Ashok Chockalingham of Amrut.
Dishoom has been around for a year or so, by my previously mentioned dodgy remembering, and I’ve been along to punish their free wifi and excellent chai on a couple of wet afternoons but never managed to dig into either their drinks or food menu. The Squad meetup gave us an opportunity to both, as well as try a few Indian whiskies. Dishoom have based their schtick on the old traditions of cafés in Bombay, with a tapas-style menu of dishes to share as well as a good range of drinks. We kicked off the afternoon with a cocktail put together specially by bar boss Carl – the Honeycomb Amrut Fusion Sour:
- 10ml fresh lemon juice
- 10ml fresh lime juice
- 25ml hibiscus & peach liqueur
- 35ml Amrut Fusion
- 5ml honey
- 20ml egg white
- 10ml soda
Combine ingredients and shake with ice. Strain over fresh ice.
It overcame a lot of the problems I normally have with Scotch whisky being used in sours, but rather than it being due to the use of Amrut (which is quite Scotch-like in style) it was the liqueur and honey that did it – the sweetness masking the overly malty kick that I normally dislike. It’s a worryingly easy to drink cocktail that I may have knocked back a little quickly. We followed up the cocktail with a little bit of food, to give us a taste for the menu – calamari, lamb chops and tikka. It was all rather good.
We then moved on to Ashok and the world of Amrut. The distillery is based in Bangalore, a city in the south of the country and capital of the state of Karnataka, and was founded in 1948 by JN Radhakrishna Rao Jagdale. They’ve produced various spirits over the years including blends using imported whisky. Whisky in India is a bit of a wide term, with the regular blends being a combination of malt whisky and other spirits, mainly molasses based (aka rum), and Amrut produced whisky in the same was as everyone else for years. In the 1980s they upped their game a bit by getting some pot stills so as to be able to produce their own malt whisky and not pay the huge tariffs introduced by the Indian government on imported spirits (still a sticking points between the EU and India despite them dropping it from somwhere between 350% and 700%, depending on the source you read, to ‘just’ 150%) and continued producing their regular blends until the 1990s when grandson Rakshit, aka Riki, was studying for an MBA in Newcastle.
For his thesis he examined the potential for marketing a real Indian single malt whisky (without any other spirits involved) in Europe and found that there was one. He returned home, helped develop the initial versions of Amrut and then decided to launch it in, of all places, Glasgow. It seems like a foolish plan, but the sheer balls of it got them a chunk of free press and with the help of sympathetic landlords like Ken Storrie of The Pot Still (who sadly died a couple of years back) they managed to get people to try it (normally by giving it away free and not telling people where it was from) and slowly they got a foot in the door of the market. Fast forward to today and they are producing an award winning range of single malts which are almost exclusively exported – unfortunately the whiskies are too expensive to get much traction at home where molasses spirit heavy bottlings are orders of magnitude cheaper. In a way that’s good for us outside of India because the Indian market is huge enough that if Amrut was more affordable there’s little chance we’d see any of it.
Bangalore has quite a different climate to Scotland, sitting at 3000ft it’s almost double the height above sea level of Scotland’s highest distillery (Braeval at 1665ft), and combines that altitude with a dry climate and temperatures that can happily hit 40°c. This gives them an angel’s share of between 10% and 16% per year and also leads to the ABV increasing over time, as the dry air around the barrels leaches out more water than alcohol. To help with this their warehouses sit at about 6°c below ambient temperature and they fill their casks at a slightly lower ABV than is traditional in Scotland, at 62.5%.
We started the tasting with a stunt whisky, although we weren’t to know that immediately. On the nose it was incredibly light with a new spirit sweetness, a hint of sick, mulchy grain and lemon – my notes ask ‘Is this vodka?’. To taste it was sweet, light and buttery, with some creamy butter icing. It finished sweet turning through light citrus to bitter apple skin. A very lightly flavoured whisky that had the room nodding in seeming appreciation, with a few slightly worried looks flashing around. There were mumbled “it’s okay”s when Ashok asked what we thought and a sigh of relief when the wrapper came off the bottle to reveal that we hadn’t started on an Amrut – it was Bagpiper, formerly India’s best selling whisky, freshly imported that morning by Pooja. It was launched in the mid-1970s and is a traditional Indian whisky – aka a blend of molasses based spirit and malt whisky. It’s probably not aged very long, if at all, and is probably dosed with a good chunk of caramel and ‘wood essence’ to create the flavour. As such, it sells for about 350 rupees, £4 a bottle. I’ve been wanting to try an Indian not-whisky for a while and this didn’t disappoint – while it was pretty much a coloured and slightly flavoured vodka it was nowhere near as bad as I expected. I suspect that I would still find £4 a bit of a push for the liquid, but I might pay that for the bottle itself – the be-turbaned piper on the front rocks quite a lot.
Next up we assumed we’d be getting Amrut, but yet again we were thrown a curve ball. On the nose it had black pepper, cumin, stewed fruit, sour green apple and unripe nectarines. To taste it was sweet up front with a balanced apple sourness and some pear drop spiritiness. It finished short with some syrup sweetness and a dose of spice. The label came off to show that we still hadn’t got on to any of Ashok’s whiskies – this was Kuchhnai, a blended Scotch whisky produced by a London company with an eye to the ex-pat Indian market. The name is a slightly dodgy pun, meaning ‘nothing’ – if someone asks you want to drink you say ‘nothing’ and they pour you some whisky! Ahem. Anyways, it’s an inexpensive blend and despite the slight spiritiness on the palate was quite drinkable. (No picture because I am rubbish)
We then started onto the Amrut whiskies. Dram #3 had a nose of buttered toast, marmalade, roast beef meatiness, cold cream, vanilla, Garibaldi biscuits, tropical fruit squash and grapefruit. To taste it was sweet and fruity, with balanced sour stoned fruit (peachs and plums), Shreddies with milk, bananas and a hint of young spirit. It finished dry with lingering maltiness and creamy butter. This was quite a special whisky to try as it’s not been released yet. It’s a sherry cask matured experiment that they’re considering releasing at the moment. I reckon it might do. (No picture for reasons similar to the previous lack of a photo)
Dram #4 had a nose of vanilla sugared currants, danish pastries, sour grapes, wide grained wood and lightly stewed bramley apples. It tasted rich and fruity with big woody spice, dark chocolate and leather. It finished tannic and drying with mulled wine and dry chilli spice. The cover came off to show that this was the Amrut Intermediate Sherry, an accident that turned out right in the end. The original plan was to mature in bourbon and then finish the whisky in sherry casks. However, after leaving the spirit in the sherry casks for a bit they tasted it and found that the sherry had overpowered the spirit. They then shifted it back into bourbon casks to rest a bit longer and round out the flavour, rather liked the result and bottled it as Intermediate Sherry. It’s only about 6 years old, but with the high angel’s share and climate they a) can’t leave the spirit in the barrels much longer as it’ll all evaporate and b) don’t need to, as the temperature variations force the whisky in and out of the wood more rapidly than in cooler climes accelerating the wood influence part of maturation.
Dram #5 started with a nose of sandalwood, pepper, dark sugars, Garibaldis (again), candied mango and sour grapes. To taste it was sweet and grainy but quite closed with some woody spice and young spirit flavours, with water bringing out more cream, green fruit and cereal, and green Jolly Ranchers. It finished with sour grain, green apples, big malt and some dry tannins. The label came off to show that this was one I’d tried before back in the days before I worked at The Whisky Exchange – TWE’s 10th Anniversary Cask Strength Amrut. This is bit of a beast of a whisky, coming in at 63%, and definitely needs some water to become approachable. It was chosen by m’colleagues in 2010 as part of a range of drams to celebrate the company’s 10th year of operation. I tried it at the anniversary tasting but due to the impact of 10 cask strength whiskies and a swift half or two beforehand (even with a 15 minute break in the middle) my notes were almost entirely illegible, and all I remember about the Amrut was that it was a bit hot and needed some water.
Dram #6 was another I’ve tried before, although like the previous one not a dram I’ve written about in the past. On the nose it was green and gravelly, with currants and sour raisins, pepper, umami meatiness and damp wood. To taste it had intense fruit, sugared raisins, sweet & sour grapes and rough grainy wood. It was a bit hot and a drop of water worked wonders, enhancing the fruity flavours and adding in spiced cream and a hand cream-like note. It finished long with raisins and freshly cut wood. This one was revealed to be the distilleries most successful whisky to date – Amrut Fusion, made using a mix of Scottish and Indian barley. The last time I tried this was while judging an award: it was unanimously voted as being excellent despite being the first dram of the day – we went back at the end and it was still the best. It’s such a big seller that getting enough of the whisky needed to make it is cutting into their cask strength releases, making them rather hard to find.
…and on that note we came on to dram #7. On the nose it had gravel and earthy peat, dry smoked ham, ground charcoal, stacked grass and a hint of lime. On the palate it had sweet smoke, sweet young spirit, rich raisins, gravel and earthiness. It finished with floral hints, rich caramel, raw sugar and green wood smoke. The label came off to show that this was Amrut Peated Cask Strength, a whisky that Ashok was rather surprised that Jason had managed to find (although we still have a few bottles left at work). Bottled at a rather poky 62.8% it’s packed full of smoke, all provided by imported Scottish peat. An interesting dram that will hopefully become more available as their production catches up with demand – fortunately with the shorter maturation times in Bangalore it’s only a five or six year wait rather than the eight to ten you might get in Scotland.
Anyways, that was it. After seven drams the bonus of being in a restaurant became apparent – a group of us moved two tables to the left and stayed for dinner. I think whisky tastings in restaurants have a future… (try the dall, it’s pretty special).
So, thanks to Ashok, deserved award winner that he is, all the folks at Dishoom, Pooja the whisky mule, Jason and Andy for their usual levels cat herding. Next time – Tequila squad.
Blended Indian Whisky, 40%. ~£4
Blended Scotch Whisky, 40%. ~£13
Experimental sherried Amrut
Indian single malt whisky, 48%. Not yet available
Amrut Intermediate Sherry
Indian single malt whisky, 57.1%. ~£70
Amrut TWE 10th Anniversary Cask Strength
Indian single malt whisky, 63%. ~£47
Indian single malt whisky, 50%. ~£45
Amrut Peated Cask Strength
Indian single malt whisky, 62.8%. ~£55